As Republican leaders at both the state and national level call for moderation of GOP rhetoric and policy toward immigration as part of their collective soul-searching over the party’s future, it appears that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has decided to march to the beat of a different drum. Cruz has stepped up to become a de facto national spokesman for the faction of the GOP that is resisting the comprehensive immigration reform championed by a bipartisan group of his Senate colleagues.
If Cruz seems to be marching out of step with national and state GOP leaders attempting to lower the volume on the party’s immigration rhetoric, results from the last University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll suggest that the drumbeat he might be listening to is the one being played by his voters. Whatever the strategic concerns of figureheads and strategists worried about alienating an ever-increasing bloc of Latino voters, Cruz partisans expressed support for restrictive and punitive policies on immigration.
To look at the attitudes of Cruz supporters, we went back to our October 2012 survey. About two weeks before Election Day, we found that 54 percent of likely voters indicated that they would vote for Cruz compared to 39 percent who favored Democrat Paul Sadler (the election results were 56 percent for Cruz and 41 percent for Sadler – well within our margin of error of +/- 3.46%).
Immigration and border security were certainly on the minds of Cruz supporters in October: Among likely voters who indicated that immigration or border security was the most important problem facing Texas, Cruz received 86 percent of the vote. Cruz also cleaned up among those who held more negative attitudes and favored more punitive action toward immigrants. He garnered 70 percent of voters who believe that immigrants living in the state for at least three years should pay out-of-state tuition. Among those who believe that state and local police in Texas should be permitted to inquire about or report on the immigration status of people they routinely encounter – call it the Arizona model – he took 73 percent. Respondents who think we should do more to restrict and control people coming into the U.S. than we do now favored Cruz by 15 points; 64 percent of those who don’t believe that immigrants pay their fair share of taxes supported Cruz, while 68 percent of those who do not believe that newcomers from other countries enrich Texas also supported the senator.
Many Republican leaders are making efforts to lead the base away from the harsh immigrant and immigration-related positions that many think hurt the GOP brand in 2012, and will hurt it even more in the future. But there is evidence that Cruz’s high-profile skepticism may well be more in line with the attitudes of Republican voters, at least in Texas, where Cruz is likely to appear on the ballot again. It’s possible that Republican attitudes have shifted dramatically on immigration, and that after only a couple of months in Washington, D.C., the junior senator from Texas has already lost touch with his voters. But public opinion rarely shifts so dramatically in a short period of time without a major triggering event. The 2012 election seems to have been just such an event for GOP elites; we’ll see in the next UT/Texas Tribune poll if it had the same effect on Texas voters.