CHICAGO — Newt Gingrich has shocked the political world in the past month by shooting to the top of the polls only weeks before the first votes are cast in the Republican presidential primary, so maybe it should come as no surprise that he shocked everyone again with his comments on immigration at last week’s debate in Washington, D.C.
Gingrich outlined a far more moderate approach to the hot-button issue than many of his top rivals, including Mitt Romney. Rather than taking a hard-line stance and advocating for illegal immigrants to be rounded up and booted from the country, the former speaker of the House has taken a position that he says is more in line with “the party of the family.”
“There’s a way to ultimately end up with a country where there’s no more illegality, but you haven’t automatically given amnesty to anyone,” Gingrich said, prompting rivals such as Romney to denounce his stance as “amnesty.”
Undeterred, Gingrich argued that his stance was simply “humane.”
“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century,” he said. “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”
Essentially, Gingrich stated that the government should not expel immigrants if they have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes, and obeying the law. While much of the post-debate coverage highlighted the divide between Gingrich and Romney — the top two GOP candidates in the most recent polls — and the harm that Gingrich’s gamble could do to his new-found contender status, there is reason to believe that his comments may not be so harmful after all. In fact, they might even help him in the long-run.
A recent poll by Univision and Latino Decisions got right to the heart of the issue. In the poll, registered voters were asked if they were more or less likely to back a candidate who supported an immigration system based on the assimilation model or the criminal model.
While 37 percent of Republicans responded that they were more likely to back a candidate who supported the criminal model, 35 percent said they were more likely to back a candidate who supported the assimilation model — a statistically insignificant difference between the two factions.
When the question was asked of Democrats, they sided greatly in favor of the assimilation model: 58 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to back a candidate who supported the assimilation model, compared to only 16 percent in favor of the criminal model.
Independents, too, favored the assimilation model with 44 percent saying they were more likely to back a candidate who supported that approach and only 18 percent endorsing the criminal model.
In addition, of the Republicans who were interviewed for the poll, 31 percent said they were less likely to back a candidate who supported the criminal model, while 17 percent said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who employed the assimilation approach.
“Overall, the story is that the assimilation model is more helpful and less harmful among Democrats and Independents, while the criminal model is only marginally helpful but relatively more harmful among Republicans,” Northern Arizona University professor Stephen A. Nuno said.
The poll also specifically asked Latino voters about their support along party lines. When it came to Latinos, 81 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans said they would be more likely to back candidates who supported the assimilation model. On the other hand, 62 percent of Latino Independents, 61 percent of Democrats, and 42 percent of Republicans replied that they would be less likely to support a candidate in favor of the criminal model.
“Perhaps the most imperative news for the GOP today is that even Latino Republicans are strongly supportive of candidates who favor the assimilation model, while a significant amount of Latino Republicans are less likely to support candidates who promote the criminal model,” Nuno said, noting that the “current Republican position on immigration coming from the primary candidates will not only garner almost no advantage among whites as discussed above, but risks further isolating the party from a key demographic group like Latinos.”
Latinos, the fastest-growing voting group in the nation, are poised to play a larger role in this year’s elections than ever before. In 2008, 6.6 million Latinos voted. Next year a record 12.2 million Latinos are set to vote, according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. From states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, where the Latino population has traditionally been prominent, to other states such as Virginia and North Carolina, where the Latino population has recently increased, GOP candidates would risk jeopardizing Latino support at their own peril.
Moreover, Republicans already face an uphill battle if they are to compete against President Obama for the Latino vote in the general election next year. In 2008 Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote nationwide and he continues to enjoy sizable leads over his potential GOP opponents among Latinos.
Ultimately, it may be Romney’s hard-line approach to immigration — not Gingrich’s — that risks turning off Republican voters. Gingrich’s stance, after all, is pretty similar to that of the last two GOP nominees: George W. Bush in 2004 and Sen. John McCain in 2008. Bush pushed for a temporary worker program to allow undocumented immigrants to register and stay legally as temporary workers, while McCain’s position virtually mirrored that of Obama during the 2008 election.
“The data from Latino Decisions and past surveys, indicate that a humane approach to immigration is not only a better short-term political strategy, but demographic shifts in the electorate present a compelling argument that a humane approach is a better long-term strategy as well — for both political parties,” Nuno said. “The only one among the current crop of Republican candidates who can see this, and understands it, Gingrich, is the one who also happens to be settling at the top of the GOP ticket at the right time.”
Immigration groups — and even some Democrats — were quick to applaud Gingrich for his immigration stance. Melisa Diaz, a Democratic analyst, said in a post-debate interview in Washington that she found Gingrich’s comments “favorable,” and Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund, said “it was good to see a bit of compassion added to the immigration debate.”
“There are four reasons why we saw this change,” Noorani said. “First, in order to win the general election, the GOP needs to secure at least 40 percent of the Latino and immigrant vote. Second, they are beginning to realize that we can’t spend our way out of an immigration mess. Every year we spend billions upon billions of dollars on mass deportation pipe dreams. Third, morally and economically, a reformed immigration system is necessary to heal our nation. Faith leadership is clamoring for a policy solution that eases the pain and suffering of their congregations while agricultural employers watch produce rot in the fields due to a shortage of skilled farm workers. Finally, voters want real solutions, and there is strong support — 72 percent in a recent Pew Research Center poll — for ‘providing a way for illegal immigrants in the U.S. to gain citizenship, if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs.’ Even a majority of Republican voters support this approach.”
In addition, the National Council of La Raza praised Gingrich’s comments as “refreshing.”
“Mr. Gingrich’s comments are welcomed, especially coming from him as a Republican presidential contender in a primary where candidates have treated immigrants with disdain and immigration reform as political weapon against their opponents,” said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the Office of Research Advocacy and Legislation at NCLR. “We don’t agree with everything he’s said, but it is refreshing to hear a GOP presidential candidate address the substance of immigration reform and bring some common sense to the discussion within the GOP race. Reasonable voters know that deportations of millions of law abiding, tax-paying people, who have lived in this country for decades and are raising families, isn’t a practical solution.”
Despite signs that Gingrich’s immigration stance could help him, his rivals in the Republican race, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum, have hit out at him time and time again in the days since the Washington debate.
“Even he said after the debate the other night that millions of people would be able to stay in this country as a result of this proposal. I don’t know what you call amnesty. Does amnesty only mean full citizenship or does it mean you are forgiven for your transgressions and you are allowed to stay here under some status? If that’s amnesty then that’s clearly what Newt is suggesting,” Santorum said today in an interview with the board of the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire.
“The principal thing we need to accomplish,” he warned, “is securing the border.”
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.