Immigration No Longer a Deal Breaker for Conservative Voters?

Focus-group participants did not believe a path to citizenship was tantamount to amnesty after it was presented as a tough, lengthy process. But impressionable primary voters could be swayed by opponents who insist on calling it amnesty and describe it as a reward for entering the U.S. illegally.

"One of the key things for Republicans is to get the idea out that there are all these conditions in here and it's not amnesty," McLaughlin said.

That might not be an easy thing to explain.

"It may be that sometimes you have to beat the bumper sticker with the one-pager," Gillespie said. "We and others are trying to see if there is language that captures all this more readily."

McLaughlin also said that GOP primary voters he spoke to harbor a "deep middle-class resentment" at the notion that President Obama attempted to "buy the Hispanic vote" by touting immigration reform and his healthcare law. It will be crucial for Republicans to explain that undocumented immigrants who become legalized will not be eligible for federal benefits until they earn citizenship, McLaughlin said.

"This is just their talk, it doesn't mean it's true, but [a man in South Carolina said], 'I heard they ran ads in Mexico for people to come to the United States to take food stamps,'" McLaughlin said. "It's that kind of mythology that you hear."

At the end of the day, these findings suggest that Republican voters may simply see immigration reform as a bitter bill they have to swallow in order to broaden their appeal to Latino voters.

"The instinctive resistance to immigration reform amongst Republican primary voters seems like it may be giving way to an instinctive resignedness to do it," Gillespie said.

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