Hillary Clinton holds a dominant lead among Latino voters with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a head to head matchup for president, according to a new national poll that could impact a fierce debate within the GOP over immigration.
The survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University, tested a variety of possible 2016 pairings with 1,944 registered voters and had a margin of error of +/-2.2 percent. Clinton led Rubio by a 50-34 margin, including 60-24 among Latino voters. Rubio performed worse than Chris Christie overall, who trailed Clinton 45-37 nationally, and only slightly better with Latinos, where Christie was down 62-23. Paul Ryan also performed weak against Clinton, losing 50-38 in an overall matchup and even worse with Latino voters, 69-21.
There are a lot of caveats: it’s just one poll, 2016 is light years away, and Rubio only recently took on a major role in passing an immigration reform bill. It doesn’t hurt that one of the most prominent pro-immigration Republicans in America, Jeb Bush, took a huge step to the right this week on the issue, making Rubio’s support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants look more courageous by comparison.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take polls like Quinnipiac’s seriously. In fact, the surveys themselves could have a significant impact on whether immigration reform succeeds.
That’s because perhaps the biggest debate within the GOP on immigration isn’t about policy, it’s about politics. On the pro-reform side, Republicans like Rubio and John McCain argue that immigration reform is a matter of survival for the party — a necessary prerequisite for courting the growing Latino vote before must-win states like Texas turn blue. As Rubio is fond of saying, “It’s very hard to make the economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.” Jeb Bush devotes an entire chapter of his book towards convincing Republicans that Latinos can be won over if the conversation just shifts to education, religion, and the economy.
On the other side are reform critics like Rush Limbaugh and the National Review’s editorial board, who argue that immigration isn’t worth antagonizing white conservatives because Latinos will never vote Republican even if it passes.
“Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies,” read a National Review editorial in January. “Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey.”
Putting the rhetoric about welfare mothers aside, there is strong polling evidence that Latinos side with Democrats strongly on economic issues as well, giving Republicans less of an opportunity to dislodge them. Some Republican consultants have suggested setting a modest target of consolidating conservative Latinos, with an optimistic goal of hitting the mid-40s overall in the long term.
But on the pro-reform side, a poll this week by Latino Decisions exclusively surveying Latino voters found that immigration had moved well ahead of the economy in terms of its relative importance to the community. In addition, respondents said they would be far more likely to vote for Republicans if they backed a path to citizenship for the undocumented population.
Data is still scarce on the post-election state of the Latino vote, but if Rubio can’t move the needle in polls even as immigration reform approaches passage it could intensify fears among rank-and-file Republicans that they’re about to grant legal status to a giant new Democratic voting bloc. For that reason alone, it’s worth keeping an eye on the 2016 crosstabs even if it’s three years out from the GOP primaries.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.