In the same way that Democrats had a difficult time proving their national security bona fides in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Barack Obama may be doing his party a generation’s worth of damage on the issue of immigration.
For years, Republicans were favored by voters to handle the issue of “illegal immigration,” but Democrats were perceived by voters as better positioned to handle the issue of immigration in general. In 2006, polls consistently showed voters favoring Democrats over the GOP on the issue of immigration by between 10 and 16 points.
That began to change when Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigration reform package as one of their first acts as the new majority party in Congress in 2007. That bill’s failure in the Senate in June of that year likely helped save Democrats from themselves and they retained the public’s trust on the issue of immigration.
This year, that dynamic has utterly flipped. The president’s handling of the summer’s crisis on the border led voters to give up on Obama’s ability to manage the affairs of the nation that related to immigration.
A Politico poll of 2014 midterm battleground states released in September found that just 35 percent of those likely to vote this November supported how Obama had handled that crisis and immigration in general. 64 percent of respondents disapproved. The voters in the battlegrounds now backed the GOP over Democrats on the issue of immigration by 34 to 31 percent. An October Washington Post/ABC News poll confirmed that the GOP was now narrowly favored by Democrats to handle immigration.
The pundit class seemed cautious about drawing many conclusions from this shift in public opinion at the time. Coming as it did in the wake of a highly publicized crisis, perhaps this was just a spike in support for the GOP on the issue of immigration reform. Few dared suggest it was the start of a trend in which Democrats would cede that issue to the GOP entirely.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday confirms that Obama has done significant and lasting damage to his party’s brand when it comes to immigration. That poll found voters split on Obama’s executive actions on immigration, with 45 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving, but comprehensive immigration reform itself is actually beginning to shed support.
Only 48 percent of Americans say they back a pathway to citizenship. That is down from 57 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released just over a year ago. 35 percent say that illegal immigrants should be deported, a 9-point increase in support from last year.
“Democrats support Obama’s immigration move 74 – 18 percent, with opposition at 75 – 20 percent among Republicans and 51 – 40 percent among independent voters,” Quinnipiac found.
That suggests that Obama’s actions have made the concept of immigration reform with a pathway to legal status for some immigrants less popular. In 2007, a reform proposal that would have extended a four-year visa to illegal immigrant residents if they had no criminal record and paid a $5,000 fine enjoyed much broader support across the board.
“But the [2007 New York Times/CBS News Poll] showed that differences are not great between Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with 66 percent of Republicans in the poll favoring the legalization proposal, as well as 72 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents,” The New York Times reported at the time.
Those are levels of support that Obama and his party could only dream of today, and that was a measure which still failed to pass a Democrat-led Congress.
When Obama leaves office, Democrats will have to start from scratch when they again begin appealing to American voters with an immigration reform pitch. The president’s actions have made the public less friendly toward any reform proposal and, for that matter, the Democrats who support it.