LONDONDERRY, N.H. — In 2004, it was the Iraq War. In 2008 and 2012, it was the economy.
And as 2016 approaches, immigration has become the presidential race’s most divisive issue in the GOP primary — with ramifications that could extend until next November.
Well before Donald Trump’s comments debasing Mexican immigrants and a San Francisco woman’s death allegedly at the hands of an illegal immigrant earlier this month, voters peppered candidates with immigration questions in town hall meetings across the Granite State.
“Immigration has been a question in every event I have gone to for months and months,” former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina said in an interview during her five-day swing in New Hampshire last week.
The candidates’ stances on immigration have become, for some GOP voters, a litmus test to determine whether a hopeful is conservative, moderate, or somewhere in between. Their positions often denote whether they stand with the traditional GOP stronghold of business — which generally support a pathway to legal status for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants — or with the populist base, who foremost want to secure the southern border.
And because immigration is one of the few issues that divide the GOP candidates, voters have been eager to discern their differences.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush was asked about it during a Fourth of July parade in Merrimack. Last Monday, former New York governor George Pataki announced his immigration plan and challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate on it. On Tuesday, when Dr. Ben Carson addressed a bipartisan crowd in Manchester, the first voter question was on immigration. Later that night in the same city, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal took questions — and two out of nine of them were on immigration.
“You hear politicians talking about it, but it is not getting done,” Jindal said in an interview last week. “That is the reason I do think this is an enduring issue in this campaign.”
The next day, former Texas governor Rick Perry released a three-minute video where he talked straight to the camera on his experience with the issue — a direct retort to Trump.
The questions and speeches keep coming as the rate of apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the southern border has hovered near its lowest level in two decades, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the estimated number of undocumented immigrants more than tripled from 1990 to 2007, reaching 12.2 million, researchers say this number has since dropped by a million.
And the issue extends beyond the campaign trail. In the latest University of New Hampshire poll, likely Republican voters said immigration was the third-most-important issue facing the country, behind the economy and foreign policy. That places immigration ahead of health care, the national debt, entitlement reform, gay marriage, or taxes as an issue Republicans say the next president must address.
“The immigration conversation is really important in the Republican race because it is the one issue in the top five issues where there are real differences,” said Matt Batzel, the national executive director of American Majority, a group that trains Republican activists around the country.
What’s more, having an unpopular position on immigration stings candidates. In February 2013, a UNH poll showed US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida nearly topping the Republican field in the Granite State. Several months later, after he helped lead the charge on an immigration bill that would have created a path for illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship, his poll numbers nose-dived to seventh place. Even though he has walked away from his plan, Rubio has not recovered.
Trump, meanwhile, has seen his numbers soar in recent Republican primary polls. His recent comments that the Mexican government is “forcing . . . criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” into the United States have garnered substantial attention. Nearly every other Republican in the field was forced to respond in the days following.
Bush, who wrote a book on immigration, once argued for an immigration law providing a pathway to citizenship, but he now favors a path to legal status. He spent more time explaining his position on the topic Wednesday evening in Hudson than on any other. At his town hall meeting, Bush mentioned he is married to a Mexican immigrant and made the pitch about immigration policy and electability.
“I want to win,” Bush said. “To win, we better start figuring out ways to message our beliefs in a way that gives people hope that everybody will be included in the progress that comes.”
Like Bush, several candidates favor some kind of way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship or legal status, often with caveats — such as several offered by Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Some candidates haven’t articulated a stance or changed it, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The most conservative candidates on the issue — such as Trump and Senator Ted Cruz — repeatedly call for securing the border.
The tenor of the debate has intensified with the murder earlier this month of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, with police identifying as the gunman a Mexican who had returned to the United States after being deported five times.
The issue has not resonated as profoundly with Democratic voters, however. In a recent UNH poll, New Hampshire Democrats didn’t even place immigration among their top eight issues.
But immigration policy could still become the central issue in the general election.
Latinos voters constitute a key voting bloc in swing states such as Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Virginia and North Carolina don’t have as large of a Latino population, but these two states have become such a political battleground that every vote there has become precious. Those seven states were decided by 10 points or less in the last presidential election — and in most cases, the margin was much closer.
Republican strategists worry Trump’s unapologetic comments are hurting the Republican Party. President George W. Bush was able to win the White House with 44 percent of the Latino vote. In the 2012 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney received just 27 percent of the Latino vote when he lost to President Obama.
Listening to Republican activists ask about immigration at dozens of events recently, former longtime New Hampshire state representative Kevin Waterhouse described the complicated root of the issue’s surge.