Is Gingrich playing for the Latino vote?

Will Newt Gingrich lose ground in the polls after moving away from a hard line on enforcement among current illegal immigrants?  The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich says that the Speaker may have erased his momentum in the caucuses by arguing for a “humane” consideration of extenuating circumstances involving family ties and lengthy, established residence (via Politico’s Morning Score e-mail blast):

Gingrich, however, lost much of the ground he gained when he argued for making it possible for illegal immigrants to become legal residents. He said he doesn’t believe Americans will be prepared to break up families and expel neighbors who have been living among them for 25 years or more. “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law,” he said.

His position was closest to Rick Perry’s, and I happen to think it’s not only the most humane but the most realistic.  But one of Perry’s biggest problems in appealing to Iowa caucusgoers has been his record on immigration, which includes signing legislation to allow in-state tuition to some college students who came to the country illegally.

Perry also said he thinks there needs to be a way for some illegal immigrants to become legal residents. Both say they don’t support “amnesty,” or giving illegal immigrants to shortcut to citizenship. Both Romney and Michele Bachmann characterized Gingrich’s position as amnesty, and many Iowa caucusgoers are likely to see it their way.

Not so fast, argues Karoun Demirjian in the Las Vegas Sun.  Gingrich may have decided to give Latino voters, especially those who are conservative or center-right on other issues, a reason to vote Republican — and that makes a big difference in the early primary states.  Demirjian also notes that Republicans do have an opening in 2012 for these votes, if they choose to take it:

The Sun wrote last week about how the GOP in Nevada has not been doing much to appeal to Latino conservatives. It’s the same situation nation-wide: the GOP has approached the Latino vote with the line of, “We share the same values,” but has not gone much further.

Over the last few election cycles, Hispanic Americans have drifted from a pretty evenly spilt voting community — former Republican President George W. Bush carried 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 — to one that cleaves heavily toward the Democratic party: 77 percent voted for President Barack Obama in 2008.

But according to two polls released last week, Latinos have become disillusioned with the president they once supported in droves. Less than half approve of Obama’s job performance today, and his administration’s reluctance to aggressively pursue comprehensive immigration reforms while it has executed a record-breaking number of deportations plays a significant role in why. …

Latinos are also a potential primary-rocking voting bloc for Republicans in the early states.

Of the first six state contests, three — Florida, Nevada, and Colorado — boast higher-than average concentrations of Latino voters, and at least 30 percent of the community registers or regularly votes Republican.

Besides, while Gingrich’s position may have been an outlier on that stage, it may not be an outlier within the party.  Poll analyst Nate Silver looks at a May 2010 poll from the New York Times among Republican voters on immigration policy and sees Gingrich’s position as mainstream in the GOP:

Among Republican respondents to the survey, 42 percent said the immigrants should be required to leave. But 31 percent said they should be able to stay and apply for citizenship. An additional 23 percent picked the middle option: the immigrants should be allowed to stay, but as guest workers rather than citizens.

One lesson from this is that no stance on immigration will make everyone happy. The partisan divides on immigration policy are not as stark as they are on issues like the welfare state. But the intraparty disagreement can be pretty bad, as George W. Bush discovered when he tried to push a moderate bill on immigration.

Still, Mr. Gingrich’s position — which would allow some illegal immigrants to stay but not grant them citizenship — seems to come as close as anything to a middle ground. Yes, he might be a little further away from that middle ground in Iowa and South Carolina and candidates like Michele Bachmann are smart to search for any way to exploit that. But Republican views on immigration are not monolithic and should not be portrayed as such.

It’s curious that Silver reaches back to a poll that’s a year and a half old to make this point, though.  Part of the difficulty in determining where Gingrich’s position would fall is that the issue is so complex that it’s difficult to consistent poll on it.  A Rasmussen survey from two weeks ago that focused more on the “anchor baby” issue also tested whether people would be concerned that a push to deport illegals would create violations of civil rights, and found 57% either very concerned or somewhat concerned, with only 41% not very concerned or not at all concerned.  Among Republicans, that number was 47/52, while independents split 49/49.  The “other” category of ethnicity, which would include Hispanics and Asians, had it 57/39, with 41% “very concerned” about the problems that deportations might create for those legally in the US.  It’s not the same issue, but it does speak to the concerns over hard-line enforcement.

He may have more support from Pew, however.  Their October survey showed a plurality in the general population want an immigration policy balanced between enforcing the laws/strengthening the border and finding a way to legalize the illegal immigrants (42%, compared to 35% for enforcement/border security and 21% for regularization alone).  Among Republicans, that changes to 36% for balanced to 50% for enforcement/border security.  Among non-Tea Party Republicans, the numbers are 46% balance, 38% enforcement/border secuity, and 14% for regularization.  The balanced approach is not a fringe position in the GOP, but it’s probably not going to help Gingrich capture a lot of enthusiasm from the most passionate activists in the party.