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Immigration A Top Issue — For GOP Only

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By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' director of surveys.

Looking only at overall poll results can sometimes hide major differences in the way groups view issues. Many of those differences are partisan — like the huge gap between Republicans and Democrats in support for the war in Iraq. But sometimes those differences go deeper, and what is happening within a party can matter politically.

In the most recent CBS News/New York Times Poll, Republicans, Democrats and independents differed little on some specifics of the immigration reform bill that is now being debated in Congress. Immigration is one of very few current issues that don't show partisan polarization. Most in both parties said they favored a guest worker program and supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while recognizing that illegal immigration as a very serious concern.

But many Republicans in Congress are having a difficult time with the proposed legislation, and the poll suggests why — and why immigration reform may really matter only in the GOP's presidential selection process next year.

Iraq is still the big issue for both parties' voters: In the latest poll, more than one in three Democratic primary voters (registered voters who say they will vote in a Democratic primary or caucus next year) volunteered the war in Iraq as the country's most important problem (37 percent), followed by health care at 7 percent and gas prices at 6 percent. Nothing else — not immigration, not even terrorism, was named by more than 3 percent of Democrats.

Republican primary voters, however, rank issues differently. Iraq is still No. 1 for them, but at 21 percent it's much less often volunteered than it is by Democratic primary voters. Four other issues are each mentioned by one in 10 primary voters — immigration (11 percent), gas prices (9 percent), terrorism and security (9 percent), and religious and moral values (9 percent).

But the party difference is even starker when voters are asked about four specific domestic issues. We asked which of the following issues the President and Congress should concentrate on now: reducing taxes, making health insurance available to all Americans, strengthening immigration laws, or promoting traditional values? For Democratic voters, there is no contest. One issue — health care — dominates. Seventy-two percent name health care availability, and just 12 percent say strengthening immigration laws should be the priority. Even fewer — not even one Democratic voter in 10 — say the dominant issue is taxes or values.

But on the Republican side, immigration dominates. Forty percent of Republican primary voters choose strengthening immigration laws as their chief domestic issue. Twenty-four percent choose values, 22 percent health care availability, 12 percent taxes.

Immigration, therefore, is really a Republican issue now. And those four in 10 Republican primary voters who care about strengthening immigration laws have more negative feelings about immigration and immigrants than do other Republicans. For example, among those who see strengthening immigration as the most important domestic issue:

  • Fifty-eight percent believe that people now coming to the United States will in the long run make American society worse. Most other Republican voter say recent immigrants eventually will make U.S. society better.
  • Nearly two thirds (65 percent) say illegal immigrants are more likely than others to commit crimes. Fewer than half the rest of Republican voters think that.
  • Fifty-eight percent want to deport all illegal immigrants, even those who have lived and worked in the U.S. for two years. Only about a third of other Republican voters agree.

    This group of Republican primary voters also supports construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Compared with other Republican voters, they are more likely to believe that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans, and are more likely to want even legal immigration decreased.

    This anti-immigrant segment of the Republican Party is not limited to any one region, although it is less of a concern among Midwesterners. There are more men than women in this group. These voters are almost as conservative as the very conservative group who cite traditional values as their primary concern.

    Many of the Republicans now running for president, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, hold positions similar to the Republican voters who care about immigration. But some favor less punitive measures. Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the co-sponsors of the current bill, could be particularly vulnerable on immigration with those Republican voters who care the most about the issue. Although Rudy Giuliani has criticized the current bill, as Mayor of New York City he took a softer stand on immigration.

    The immigration issue hasn't had an impact on Republican voters' preferences yet. In the CBS News/New York Times poll, Giuliani leads among those Republican primary voters who said immigration was their most important domestic priority — and by about the same margin as Giuliani enjoys among all Republican voters.

    But, of course, all that could change. Our poll explains why the Democratic candidates are spending their time talking about health care —and why so many Republican voters are waiting to hear more about immigration from their party's candidates.

    By Kathleen Frankovic