Immigration has emerged as a pervasive issue in this year's politics, a part of seemingly every state and local campaign and presidential debate. The lesson from the off-year elections of 2007, however, appears to be that it's difficult for a candidate to make immigration decisive at the ballot box. Even in contests where it played a prominent role, it didn't have the influence many observers had predicted. In particular, the idea that taking a hard line on immigration would be a winning political strategy has not been proven so far.
That message came through clearest in Virginia. This past November, Republicans made tough talk on immigration central to their plans for holding on to their threatened majority in the state Senate. They ended up losing control of that body after a decade in power. Local Virginia elections told much the same story: Immigration just didn't have much effectiveness as a wedge issue. In Loudoun County, where arguments about illegal newcomers have been intense for several years, Sheriff Stephen Simpson lost a primary bid for renomination but came back to win as an independent against an opponent who had accused him of being soft on immigration. In numerous other local contests, the injection of immigration as a central concern not only failed to change the outcome but barely shifted the winner's share of the vote from previous elections.
There were some exceptions around the country, such as the defeat of Tom Selders, the mayor of Greeley, Colorado, who lost after becoming a target for expressing sympathy about illegal immigrants snared in a federal raid on a local meatpacking plant. But most of the evidence from last fall pointed in a different direction, as in 2006, when some of the more prominent immigration hardliners lost bids for Congress or for governor. "The bottom line is, to most people it's not a pocketbook issue," says Arizona pollster Jim Haynes, "and the pocketbook tends to be seminal in determining how somebody's going to end up voting."
There may be other reasons why immigration, for all the attention the issue receives, has not resonated as strongly with voters as, say, Iraq or taxes. It is on the verge of reaching saturation status, meaning it's debated all the time, not just during elections. If people are angry that the governor of New York wants to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, they make their opinions known loudly all year through talk radio and blogs. The election itself may lose some of its importance as a political pressure point.
Then, too, it's become surprisingly hard to outflank most candidates on this contentious subject. Last year's challenger to Charles Colgan, a Democratic state senator in Virginia, tried to paint him as soft, going so far as to distribute cartoons depicting Colgan helping people over the wall at the border. But Colgan countered by pointing out his votes in opposition to extending various benefits to illegal immigrants. "The first thing this nation must do," he said, "is seal the border. We cannot let this influx continue." Colgan won reelection easily.
Not everyone agrees on every proposal to make life tougher for illegal immigrants, but it's still a simple matter for any candidate to communicate a belief that border security should be tightened and that current laws should be more strictly enforced. The emergence of that kind of consensus suggests that hardliners have in fact won part of their argument -- but it also suggests that they are unlikely to win much more of it in the voting booth.