One of the rituals of going after that elusive big-game target, the "Middle-America White Male Voter," is the hunting trip. The day after Christmas, Mike Huckabee tromped through the Iowa fields with a contingent of newspeople. Huckabee's hunting party bagged three pheasants.
Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney boasted, "I've been a hunter pretty much all of my life," before it was revealed that his experience actually consisted of two hunting trips, separated by 45 years.
In Iowa's GOP presidential caucuses, one of the vote-hunting strategies for that Middle-America White Male Voter was some good, old-fashioned immigrant bashing. So how well did that anti-immigrant dog hunt? Once again we learned that the tired, old dog is all bark and no bite.
It always seemed odd to some of us that much of the Republican field thought that illegal immigration would be the defining wedge issue in a state that is 95 percent white and where the number of undocumented immigrants totals a bit more than 2 percent of the population.
But the pundits all said that finally, this year, illegal immigration would move votes for tough-talking politicians. So Tom Tancredo, a backbench congressman who appears to live only to bully immigrants, ran a commercial that claimed, "Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil," and ended with a backpack exploding in a shopping mall. The Colorado Republican congressman's "Before-it's-too-late" campaign to terrorize us into electing him president was thankfully interrupted by his withdrawal from the race, but Tancredo endorsed Mitt Romney on the way out.
Romney was a worthy recipient of the Tancredo mantle because Romney ran commercials that aired more than 12,000 times, mostly in Iowa and New Hampshire, promising to be rough and tough when it comes to illegal immigration. Romney used the debates and his commercials to blast his challengers, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Huckabee, for being soft on illegal immigrants. (All the while, Romney suffered from that peculiar hypocritical blindness that this issue seems to engender. Romney, it turns out, once employed a landscaper who used undocumented workers to landscape Romney's stately Massachusetts home. Romney continued to use the landscaping firm after that was reported, but dismissed the company when it was caught a second time using undocumented gardeners.)
Giuliani and Huckabee quickly turned themselves into political pretzels, trying to be what they had never been in real life: tough, enforcement-first upholders of our broken immigration "rule of law." Only McCain tried to maintain his self-respect on the issue.
The results are in. In a state where voters had a clear choice to vote for Romney's tough stance on illegal immigration in the Republican caucuses, they instead turned out in historic numbers to vote Democratic. There they picked Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who has unabashedly advocated an earned path to citizenship for the undocumented.
On the Republican side, Romney, despite his overwhelming funding advantage, came up short. University of Iowa polls showed that 57 percent of Iowa voters favored earned citizenship for the undocumented and only 23 percent favored deportation.
This is consistent with national polling. In 20 of 22 separate public opinion polls conducted between March and December, somewhere between 55 percent and 83 percent of the respondents favored some form of earned legal status. In the remaining two polls, the majority favored this option.
Immigrant bashing just does not move votes. The 2006 elections were a disaster for anti-immigrant demagoguery. Not only did the issue fail to stave off the Republican loss of the House and Senate, but leading Republican anti-immigrant campaigners such as Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and John Hostettler of Indiana and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania all lost their races. And in a telling portent of the future, Latino support for the GOP dropped to 26 percent from 44 percent.
Last November, Republicans trotted out their anti-immigrant dog again, trying to gain ground in Virginia and take advantage of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's botched attempt to grant driver's licenses to the undocumented in New York. The results: Democrats took the House of Delegates in Virginia and the Republican assault in New York was negligible.
Is there a take-home lesson that Republican leaders and politicians should learn from Iowa? Yes. Voters are concerned about our broken immigration system, but they want sensible solutions, not just loud barks from a toothless hunting dog.
Joshua Hoyt is the executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
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