Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, has an opinion piece over at The Politico that should be a must read for Republican party strategists. Brown confirms what I have been saying for some time now: illegal immigration is the key issue for the 2008 election cycle.
Immigration is becoming for the 2008 election what affirmative action/racial preferences was 15 years ago — the kind of emotional wedge issue that offers Republicans a way to split rank-and-file Democrats from their leaders.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the battle over programs aimed at helping minorities was a major factor in many political campaigns. The election results often appeared to contradict what seemed to be the public’s opinion on the issue.
Looking back, much of the confusion stemmed from the wording of many poll questions on the subject. They tended to show strong support for “affirmative action,” which was how the programs were described by supporters and, often, the media.
But opponents used the term “racial preferences” to describe programs that often gave minorities an edge in competition for college admission and jobs. When pollsters used that language to describe the programs, they found strong public opposition.
Affirmative action is an issue similar to immigration today, one on which Democratic activists, but not necessarily the mass of party members, differ from the general electorate. Activists often infer their opponents are racially motivated — creating strong and often hostile feelings on both sides.
How immigration plays out politically in 2008 will likely be determined by which side can convince the mass of Americans that their terminology best describes reality.
We have seen the Licenses for Lawbreakers® scheme put forth by Eliot Spitzer hit the wall at approximately Mach 4. The result is the shattering of Spitzer's hopes for higher office. (And the impact left a pretty darned impressive crater.) We have seen the presumed "inevitable" candidate for the Democrats have a mini-meltdown over the same issue. The blood is in the water there and the sharks are moving in.
If framing is, as Brown suggests, the key, then a simple, powerful slogan makes it work.
High fence, wide gate and a hearty welcome for those who play by the rules. It does not matter where you came from, if you play by the rules and want to be an American, you are welcome here. That simple, that powerful, that American. Make sure that people who are here legally have a path to upward mobility by ensuring that a flood of illegal immigrants are not cutting the props out from under the ones who play by the rules. They will vote for the party that ensures they have a way up. They will detest the party that is trying to keep them down.