Obama and Romney Battle Over Immigration But Poll Shows Voters Don't Care as Much as They Used To

Politicians view immigration as a "third rail," but fewer voters see it that way

Sept. 24, 2012— -- Immigration is sometimes called the "third rail" of American politics because of the divisive debate that surrounds it. But a new poll suggests voters do not necessarily see it the same way.

Forty-one percent of registered voters consider immigration "very important" to their vote in November, the lowest of twelve issues tested by the Pew Research Center (the economy and jobs are number one). That number is down 11 percentage points from 2008.

President Obama's supporters (36 percent) and "swing" voters (39 percent) are less likely to see immigration as very important compared to Romney supporters (47 percent). But among Republicans, the fervor over the issue has significantly died down compared to four years ago; 61 percent said it was very important to their vote. Forty-six percent of GOPers say the same today.

The Pew survey doesn't indicate whether attitudes have shifted on immigration, but other reliable polls have shown more agreement around the issue than has been on display during the presidential campaign.

An August Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that nearly half of Republicans and three-quarters of Democrats would back a policy that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status in the U.S.

Immigration has become less radioactive among voters, but the debate surrounding it has been nothing but rancorous during the campaign season.

President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have spelled out very different policies on immigration. Obama has ramped up immigration enforcement during his first term, backed more visas for highly skilled workers, and emphasized his support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Romney wants to further toughen enforcement measures and expand visas, but has said he would use enforcement policies to drive undocumented immigrants out of the country, what he called "self deportation."

Romney's decision to use his tough immigration stance to outflank his challengers in the Republican presidential primary has hurt him in the long run among Latino voters and has paid few dividends among other sectors of the electorate who care less about the issue than they did four years ago, including the GOP's own base.

"The most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from [Rick] Perry and [Newt] Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics," wrote National Journal's Ron Brownstein.

Both Obama and Romney have pledged action on immigration during the next four years. And poll numbers suggest that proposing a sweeping immigration fix might not stir voter sentiment as much as it would have in the past. But politicians on Capitol Hill don't necessarily see it that way.

"There were too many scars, too much pain, too many people had been beat up about what had happened four or five years before. I tried to raise the issue, but people said, 'Look, I just don't want to go there,'" Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in June of his failed efforts to craft an "alternative" DREAM Act. "It wasn't just Republicans, it was senators who had been burned by the way this issue was discussed and approached and didn't want to talk about it before."

And beyond the touchy issue of citizenship status, members of Congress now cannot even agree on granting more green cards to science and technology graduate degrees in the U.S., something that Obama and Romney both support.

Until political leaders see the issue the same way that voters do it's hard to see progress coming in the next four years.