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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Flanking the Immigration Wedge

By Jim Kessler
In any election, the key to winning comes down to this: In the final weeks of the race, are you generating news on the subject of your choosing or of your opponent’s choosing? In Virginia in 2005, the subject in the closing weeks was on illegal immigration. That was not where Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tim Kaine wanted it to be.
The latest sequel to America’s continuing love-hate saga with immigration kicked off, of all places, in the affluent bedroom community of Herndon, Virginia in 2005. Fueled by a massive building boom, illegal immigrants flooded northern Virginia seeking work. They gathered in front of the local 7-11’s each morning hoping to be selected by construction managers to work for a day rate. As the numbers grew, the town leaders of Herndon decided to spend taxpayer dollars to create a day-labor center where immigrants could congregate to seek work away from public view. This ignited a political firestorm as angry residents demanded to know why their tax dollars were being spent to help lawbreakers find jobs that many Americans wanted.
Republicans, predictably, framed the issue succinctly and effectively. Virginia Republican Jerry Kilgore launched an ad campaign accusing Tim Kaine of abetting the “growing illegal immigration crisis” in the state. “And Tim Kaine?” the announcer asks. “Kaine favors taxpayer-funded job centers and supports in-state tuition discounts for illegals. Taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants? What part of illegal does Tim Kaine not understand?”
Democrats, predictably, reached for their base and played the empathy card. Kaine didn’t so much respond as demur. At a bilingual center in neighboring Falls Church, Kaine accused Kilgore of “grandstanding” and voiced tepid support to Herndon officials for “trying to solve a local problem.”
In the end, illegal immigration did not close the sale for Kilgore. But Kaine pollster Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group admitted that they had dodged a bullet. “We were flying a little bit blind.” Republicans took notice and so did some Democrats. “This is going to be the gay marriage of 2006,” said Nathan Daschle of the Democratic Governors’ Association.

In May 2006, we hired Brodnitz to conduct Third Way’s polling and to help us solve the impending immigration wedge. Our task was to devise a message to win over moderates while supporting progressive principles for immigration reform that included a path to citizenship. We sought to de-claw this issue and give guidance to progressive elected leaders and candidates who wanted to preserve their Hispanic base but feared alienating middle-class white voters in the process.
After analyzing our results, we came to believe that not only could this issue be neutralized, it could and should be won.
Let’s start with some demographic facts. On October 17th, the United States population hit 300 million. 37 million people — one out of every eight residents — were born in another country. 12 million people — one–third of the foreign–born population — are illegal. This is not a pretend issue.
Partial birth abortion, for example, affects at most 8 out of every 10,000 abortions. It may have symbolic meaning to quite a few Americans, but it has no practical meaning in the number of abortions that occur each year. Illegal immigration affects practically every community. Unlike the last major immigration law overhaul debate in 1986 that affected almost exclusively the border states of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, today’s illegal immigration population has exploded in states like Wisconsin, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Arkansas, and even Alaska.
Progressives are playing with fire if they relegate those who express deep reservations about illegal immigration to the categories of intolerant, anti–Hispanic, or mean–spirited. People are concerned because they have a right to be.
We conducted a poll of 1,236 likely voters with an oversample of Hispanics and African-Americans. From the results of this poll, we advised progressives that there were three arguments they must win in order to command the immigration debate and two lessons that they should heed.
Lesson one is don’t confuse support with popularity. By an 83-15% margin, voters support immigration reform that provides illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. However, 60% of these same voters believe that “deporting all 12 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries would be a good goal.”
This is not a contradiction, but a complexity. Voters are torn on this issue. They believe illegal immigrants are hard working, decent people and they are willing to grant them the full rights that come with citizenship. At the same time, they believe they are a burden to the taxpayer and lawbreakers. This complexity is the key to solving the immigration wedge and winning the three arguments necessary to do so.
Lesson two is to understand that Democrats enter the debate with baggage. We read statements to voters and asked them whether they thought this was something a Democrat, Republican, neither or both parties would say. I don’t care if they broke the law, illegal immigrants deserve the same rights and privileges as American citizens. By a margin of 30-points, Independents said that’s a Democrat. We should help illegal immigrants get a job even if it costs an American citizen a job. Again, by 30-points, Independent voters said that’s a Democrat.
Understanding these preconceived notions is critical when it comes time to choose the right messages. Democrats are always inclined to stress fairness, compassion and justice to illegal immigrants — it’s simply in their nature. But voters already expect Democrats to be fair, compassionate, and just — to a fault. An effective Democratic message must, in this case, challenge voters’ preconceived notions, not reinforce them.
With these lessons in mind, here are the three arguments that must be won to control the terrain:
Argument #1: Fairness to taxpayers — Voter compassion toward illegal immigrants ends where their taxpayer interests begin. By a two to one margin, voters believe that illegal immigrants are a burden to taxpayers. Their number one goal for reform is fairness to taxpayers.
That means progressives must frame all of their positions as the fairest to taxpaying Americans. For example, citizenship must be earned by paying back taxes and a fine. Citizenship will turn illegal immigrants into taxpayers and force businesses to pay the taxes they now avoid by hiring illegal labor. Immigration reform will eliminate the shadow economy that allows workers and employers to evade taxes.
Argument #2: Why are they here — If voters believe that illegal immigrants are in their town, county, state, or country to get government benefits like in-state college tuition, drivers’ licenses, or Social Security, progressives lose. If voters believe they are here to get jobs from unscrupulous businesses that turn a blind eye to the law, progressives win.
Voters will believe that immigrants came here to get jobs, but only if they are reminded. If the other side wins the framing debate over benefits, it will be a death-by-a-thousand-cuts result for pro-reform progressives.
Argument #3: Who is to blame — Under President Bush, enforcement of illegal immigration laws at the border has declined by 31%. And under Bush a person is more likely to be eaten by an alligator than to be prosecuted for hiring illegal labor. Republicans have a fatal vulnerability on enforcement that progressives must exploit.
Their failure to enforce the law can be explained in any of three ways: sheer incompetence, linking the conservative philosophy of smaller government to failure to man the border, or a conspiracy of failure between an Administration that chooses to ignore existing laws in order to benefit the business interests that bankroll their campaigns and hires illegal labor.
We wrapped these arguments and lesson together into a simple message that we urged progressive candidates and elected officials to use to describe their position on illegal immigration: tough, fair and practical. Tough on the border, fair to taxpayers, and practical in terms of restoring the rule of law and dealing with those already here. We advised progressives to define the opposition as ineffective, expensive, and impractical.
These are not incendiary words to describe conservatives, but they are the most effective. When we asked people how they would describe the House Republican enforcement-only plan, the overwhelming word they chose was impractical. Mean-spirited and anti-Hispanic measured far behind.
Is tough, fair and practical too tough for Hispanics and immigration advocacy organizations? It’s not. First, Hispanics are not monolithic on this issue. 51% of Hispanics said that deporting all 12 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries would be a good goal.
Second, Hispanic goals for reform are the same as those of whites: fairness to taxpayers, restoring the rule of law, finding a practical solution, and securing the border were the top four for both. In fact, it is fair to say that voters overwhelmingly support the path to citizenship because Hispanics and whites both feel it is the most practical solution to a problem they view as out of control.
No message will work unless it is used and used often. Third Way was invited by congressional campaign chairs Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel to brief all of their challengers. We were asked to lead a conference call to political consultants, pollsters, and campaign managers. We traveled to Charleston for the National Governors Association and spent an hour with nine Democratic governors. And the Service Employees International Union convened a meeting of all the immigration advocacy organizations to hear our presentation.
As expected, Republicans went on the offensive first on immigration, hammering Democrats for supporting “amnesty” and providing generous benefits to those who don’t deserve it. This time, however, Democrats were ready. Tennessee Senate hopeful Harold Ford, Jr. ran an ad excoriating his opponent for hiring illegal labor and for supporting a Bush policy that fails to enforce the laws on the books. Pennsylvania candidate Bob Casey turned the tables on Rick Santorum on enforcement and called his own plan tough and fair to taxpayers. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill blamed Republican incumbent Jim Talent for America’s immigration problem and for “allowing prosecution of employers for illegal hires to drop by 99%.” Even in Arizona where 1,000 illegal immigrants enter every day, Democrat Jim Pederson has so effectively neutralized the issue that the Los Angeles Times reported that “[immigration] isn’t likely to decide the state’s closely watched Senate contest.”
A funny thing happened to the Republican strategy of turning illegal immigration into this year’s gay marriage. Democrats have outflanked them and threaten to not only repel the immigration wedge but to win it.
With the clock ticking toward November 7th, here are the races where the immigration issue has been especially hot. In most of these races, the Republican candidate has run ads attacking his opponent on illegal immigration, and the Democrat has responded with messaging based on the tough, fair and practical framework.
• Colorado Governor: Democrat Bill Ritter versus Republican Bob Beauprez
• Arkansas Governor: Democrat Don Beebe versus Republican Asa Hutchinson
• Wisconsin Governor: Democrat Incumbent Jim Doyle versus Republican Mark Green
• Pennsylvania Senate: Democrat Bob Casey versus Republican Incumbent Rick Santorum
• Missouri Senate: Democrat Claire McCaskill versus Republican Incumbent Jim Talent
• Tennessee Senate: Democrat Harold Ford, Jr. versus Republican Larry Corker
• Arizona Senate: Democrat Jim Pederson versus Republican Incumbent John Kyl
• Colorado House (7): Democrat Ed Perlmutter versus Republican Rick O’Donnell
• South Carolina House (5): Democrat Incumbent John Spratt versus Republican Ralph Norman
• Ohio House (1): Democrat John Crowley versus Republican Incumbent Steve Chabot
• North Carolina House (11): Democrat Heath Shuler versus Republican Incumbent Charles Taylor
• Indiana House (2): Democrat Joe Donnelly versus Republican Incumbent Chris Chocola
• Arizona House (8): Democrat Gabrielle Giffords versus Republican Randy Graf
• Indiana House (8): Democrat Brad Ellsworth versus Republican Incumbent Joe Hostettler
• Pennsylvania House (6): Democrat Lois Murphy versus Republican Incumbent Jim Gerlach

Jim Kessler is Vice President for Policy at Third Way

One comment on “Flanking the Immigration Wedge

  1. Douglas Wright on

    I see myself as a progressive and as such, I am keenly aware that we have an obligation to care for the poor and those otherwise in need who are in this country legally — whether as home born or naturalized according to the process. Historically, caring for the less fortunate has not been our best performance. We need to do more, but that effort is hampered and exacerbated by the uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants. We are a country of law and process. Illegal immigrants have no respect for our country when they violate both. I understand they come here due to poverty in their own country. We have our own poor who we have not properly cared for. So, an advocate for illegal immigrants is one who endorses their exploitation by illegal employers and one who cares little about the plight of the working poor. I agree with those who want to secure our border. I agree that the worker visa system needs to be improved and properly administered. After the border is secured, we need to hammer illegal employers with heavy fines and incarceration to remove the magnet for illegtal immigrants. We need to adjust the worker visa system to accurately reflect the actual demand for additional labor so that it can be properly administered. We need to ensure that the wide spread document fraud industry is defeated so we can know who is who. I do not want bigger government, but we have bureaucratic meltdown with Homeland Security. The bottom line is not what anyone says they will do, but what they actually do. We know that the existing situation is not fair to taxpayers, but the poor who are legally here are the real victims. Let’s be honest about this. We can not save every poor person on the planet, but before we try, we need to take care of the ones who we are responsible to care for. It is law, it is process, it is fairness, it is accountability. Thanks.

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