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Navigating the Playing Field on Immigration

Sen. John McCain's trip to Latin America this week--his third foreign trip since clinching the Republican nomination--has brought immigration back to the forefront of the presidential campaign.

As McCain hits Mexico City today and both candidates step up their efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters, a number of surveys shed light on Americans' views on the contentious topic. Overall, immigration is broadly considered one of the top issues in the campaign, but neither presidential candidate holds a clear advantage on it, as most surveys place McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama within striking distance of each other on managing immigration. This tight margin reflects the deep division in opinions on immigration by ideology and along several demographic lines.

In a June 2008 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 8 percent chose illegal immigration as the most important issue in their presidential vote decision. CNN has asked this question five times in 2008: each time about one in 10 respondents rated illegal immigration their top issue, putting it on par with terrorism, and in the most recent poll, just about even with health care.

About three in 10 Americans consider illegal immigration "extremely important" in their vote for president. According to a June 2008 Gallup/USA Today poll, 27 percent of Americans said the candidates' positions on illegal immigration will be "extremely important" to their vote, placing it below the economy (49 percent "extremely important), the situation in Iraq (44 percent) and terrorism (41 percent), but according to a recent CNN poll, the issue remains more salient than abortion, gun policy and foreign trade.

Ideology sharply divides opinions on the importance of the issue. According to the Gallup/USA Today poll, 36 percent of conservatives said illegal immigration will be "extremely important" to their vote, less than half as many liberals agree.

But ideology isn't the only dividing line. About three in 10 Americans over age 35 said illegal immigration is "extremely important" in their vote, but just two in 10 under age 35 said the same. Education matters as well: about a third of Americans with a high school degree or less view illegal immigration as "extremely important," compared with 20 percent of college graduates.

Recent polls suggest neither candidate has a lock on the issue. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in mid-May, Obama held a five-point edge over McCain as the candidate Americans trust more to handle immigration issues, but the Gallup/USA Today poll found the two about even, 36 percent said McCain would do a better job, 34 percent Obama.

The electorate is split deeply along partisan lines, with 68 percent of Democrats supporting Obama on the issue and 74 percent of Republicans favoring McCain in the Post-ABC News survey. Independents supported Obama by a margin of 12 points.

Personal economic situation plays a large role in determining whom Americans support on this issue. Those with household incomes of $50,000 or more per year supported McCain over Obama by an eight-point margin while those with less income favored Obama by 18 points. Moreover, Americans who reported having difficulty paying their bills supported Obama by 23 points and those worried about their standard of living supported the Illinois Democrat by 11 points.

One pitfall on this issue that could prove troublesome for both candidates, 19 percent in the Gallup survey, including a quarter of independents, said they trust neither candidate to handle immigration. One safe bet on this issue, both will be aiming to fill that void.


By Jennifer Agiesta  |  July 3, 2008; 2:07 PM ET
Categories:  Post Polls  
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