Thursday, June 10, 2010

Democratic Credibility on Immigration

Carrie Budoff Brown reports that smart Democratic pollsters are trying to recast the Democratic pitch for comprehensive immigration reform in recognition of political realities (my emphasis):

“[P]olling that [Stanley] Greenberg, Lake and Molyneaux conducted in 2008 proved to Greenberg that Democrats could talk in a way that won over voters. It needed to sound tough and pragmatic, but not overly punitive, the pollsters said. The message beat the amnesty charge in their polling.

“’There was more and more evidence that there were ways to address the issue,’ Greenberg said. ‘I also came to believe the country wanted to do comprehensive reform. ... People want this to be brought under control, and they know you can’t just expel people.’

"The most significant shift in language involves the path to citizenship. Pollsters determined that Democrats sounded as though they wanted to reward illegal immigrants, even though lawmakers almost always laid out that requirements and delays that would precede citizenship.

“’It comes back to this idea: We give permission; we set the terms; it’s under our control; and if you meet those conditions, you are us, welcome to America,’ Westen said of the new frame."
This all sounds perfectly reasonable to me. And I agree with Jonathan Chait that it amounts to a drastic political concession on Democrats' part.  But it points to a feature of political messaging that doesn’t get enough attention. Very few voters need to be advised that what politicians say isn’t always an accurate expression of what they really care about. So political messaging isn’t likely to be well-received, even if voters like the message’s content, if they don’t think it’s a credible expression of the messenger’s real priorities. There needs to be a convincing fit between a political message’s content and the target audience’s perception of the messenger's values.

Liberals tend to think that their biggest problem on immigration is rampant racist and nativist sentiment among core Republican constituencies. I suspect that the bigger problem is that a lot of voters who aren’t nativists and racists have decided that Democratic immigration talk is cheap; they think Democratic promises to secure the border are just a pretext for conferring a political payoff on Latino voters. When that payoff in the form of a reasonably easy pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens is out the door, they expect Democratic politicians to stop caring about border security enough to devote adequate resources to it. When you think about it, that’s not an unreasonable analysis of the prevailing political incentive structure.

So how do Democrats change minds on that score? Put yourself in the shoes of a skeptical, but non-nativist and non-racist, voter. Would anything convince you of the credibility of the new Democratic messaging on immigration short of a visible willingness on the part of Democrats to support border-securing measures that aren’t tied to a pathway to citizenship? Put differently, would anything convince you short of an abject Democratic capitulation on immigration that would give the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party everything it wants without asking for anything in return?

If you aren’t any better at answering this question than I am, and there are as many immigration-skeptics as I think there are, then wise comprehensive immigration reform is probably a political loser for Democrats for the foreseeable future.

No comments: