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The Polling Center: Is Easy Resolution on In-State Tuition a GOP Dream?

As Rick Perry hedges that he could yet again seek a presidential nomination, and the issue of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants continues to arise in GOP primary races, polling results help illustrate the challenges the issue poses for candidates.

Dream Act supporters outside of the W hotel at President Obama's fundraiser on May 10, 2011.

The beginning of the end of Rick Perry’s turn as not-Mitt-Romney in the 2012 GOP presidential nomination contest came on Sept. 12, 2011, when Perry defended the Texas law granting in-state tuition to some children of undocumented immigrants. His poll numbers then began a decline from which he never recovered (hastened by his own unforced errors).

As Perry makes moves to reenter the fray for the 2016 nomination and the issue of the in-state tuition law continues to arise in GOP primary races, polling results on the policy help illustrate the challenges the issue posed then and continues to pose now.

The negative reaction among GOP primary voters to Perry’s support for what has been known as the “Texas Dream Act” was not surprising to anyone following the currents of public opinion in the Republican Party as the 2012 election took shape. The embrace of extremely restrictive positions on immigration and border policy that derailed Perry then remains de rigueur in Republican primaries – particularly in Texas, as the current race for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor continues to illustrate.

Though it may seem odd given the path of Perry’s 2012 effort, public opinion suggests that his defense of a law he signed may have actually been a well-conceived but poorly executed attempt to establish a viable general election strategy. There are hints of this approach in gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s early pivot to general election politics – in which the attorney general has largely avoided the restrictive, and at times incendiary, rhetoric evident in the race for the GOP nomination to be lieutenant governor. 

Perry’s attempt to split the difference on immigration politics in the education policy realm reflected his creative maneuvering around the issue in previous election cycles, which remain the most successful examples of the tightrope walk required in state politics given public opinion and demographics in Texas.

Texans’ attitudes on in-state tuition are closely divided, though polarized along party lines. In the February 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 40 percent of registered voters said that illegal immigrants who graduated from a public high school in Texas and lived in Texas for at least a year should pay the lower in-state tuition; 47 percent thought they should pay the out-of-state rate. A slight majority of Democrats, 55 percent, opted for in-state tuition while a majority of Republicans, 61 percent, opted for out-of-state tuition. Maybe not surprisingly, 54 percent of Anglos supported out-of-state tuition, compared with only 34 percent supporting in-state tuition. Hispanics displayed the opposite attitude, with 31 percent supporting out-of-state rates and 51 percent supporting in-state rates.

These racial differences likely reflect the attitudes of non-white groups on access to higher education. In the June 2013 UT/TT poll, in response to the Legislature’s consideration of alternative routes to graduation that did not directly emphasize college preparedness, 49 percent of Texans said that Texas’ high school graduation requirements should encourage college attendance; 38 percent said that they shouldn’t. Opinions were again polarized along party lines, but maybe more importantly, the differences by race were stark. While a plurality of Anglos – 46 percent – said that graduation requirements need not encourage college attendance, only 39 percent said that they should. Among Hispanics, 69 percent said that high school graduation requirements should encourage college attendance, a 30-point gap with Anglos (and a 29-point gap with Republicans).

These results paint a picture of a Hispanic electorate that still perceives college enrollment as the most probable route to advancement. Further, these results match previous findings highlighting important racial differences in the perception of education’s importance. In May 2010, when directly asked whether a college education is necessary for a person to be successful, or whether there are many routes to success, 60 percent of Anglos expressed the opinion that there are many ways to succeed. But 54 percent of Hispanics expressed the opinion that a college education is the necessary ingredient for success.

Given these polling results, the vociferous opposition to in-state tuition as a way of proving one’s anti-illegal immigration bona fides seems likely to alienate Latino voters on two fronts, perhaps even three given Latinos’ (largely correct) assessment that higher educational attainment is linked to economic success.

The 2014 primary campaign in Texas has illustrated two paths the GOP might take given this situation. One path has been evident in the statewide primary races from the lieutenant governor’s race on down, where talk of “illegal invasions” and repealing the in-state tuition law have set the tone. The other path has been defined by a more measured tone, like Abbott’s efforts to avoid the topic altogether before calling for a modification of the in-state tuition law.  

One might chalk these divergent paths up to the differences between primary and general election strategies. But polling on GOP attitudes at the intersection between immigration and education policies suggest that the differences run much deeper than this. There are real distinctions among Republicans here, and they could pose interesting challenges should Abbott and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, share the Republican ticket in the fall. These distinctions could be even more pronounced if they are tending the home fires together while Perry mounts another debate stage, four years after that night in 2011, to make the case that he was right about in-state tuition after all.

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