Mitt Romney declared his presidential candidacy one year ago with a 2,400 word speech. None of those words was "immigration." The issue of workers illegally entering the country was dealt with one pat phrase: "I believe that homeland security begins with securing our borders." He couldn't have been more careful if he was wearing a bike helmet and knee pads. How hard of a line would he have to take on immigration? He'd wait and see. Better, for a while, to keep it vague.
A while lasted about one month. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Romney would win the first of many easily purchased straw polls, the candidate got bold. He was suddenly the defender of American sovereignty against unskilled workers making the "wide-open walk" across the border. He attacked John McCain's comprehensive immigration bill, gleefully calling it "McCain-Kennedy" and warning that "amnesty didn't work 20 years ago, and it won't work today."
Romney, swinging his platinum pick axe wildly, had finally hit on a vein of gold. He watched along with the shocked pundit class as the immigration bill came up again in the Senate and John McCain, already wounded by a mismanaged campaign, plummeted into third or fourth place. Fred Thompson started his six month sleepwalk into the race by bashing "comprehensive immigration reform": He, too, figured that this was an issue that split the campaign wide open.
And they weren't wrong. If you walked into an "Ask Mitt Anything" townhall meeting or an "Oh, God, Why Am I Doing This?" Sam Brownback event in Iowa this summer you would have heard endless, angry, heated, and pissed-off verbiage about how illegal immigrants were ruining the state. If you headed down to South Carolina, a must-win McCain state that looked iffy for a long time, you would have heard the same thing, but louder. In May, Mitt Romney visited the state with a message as sharp as his jawline. "One simple rule: No amnesty!" Sen. Lindsay Graham, a McCain ally, was booed viciously. And the rest of the Republican candidates smiled and dialed up their anti-immigration rhetoric.
The problem for the demagogues was that the primaries weren't held in the white heat of late summer, when immigration anger was at its highest. In Iowa, 33 percent of Republicans marked "illegal immigration" as their top issue, and only 4 percent of those voters went for McCain. But the fade was on. In the state where Lindsay Graham got heckled, only 26 percent of voters said illegal immigration was their top issue, compared to 40 percent who said the economy and 31 percent who said either "terrorism" or "Iraq." And a full 47 percent of those immigration voters favored a "path to citizenship" or "temporary worker" status for illegal immigrants.
Graham and McCain had been hurt by the immigration fight, of course. McCain confirmed to The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza that his coalition-building on immigration reform caused his six-month poll swoon: "I was told by one of the pollsters, 'We see real bleeding.'" But McCain massaged his stance on the issue, telling audiences that he favored "enforcement first." Mike Huckabee spent the months before Iowa and South Carolina pandering shamelessly, adopting every suggestion of groups like NumbersUSA and successfully courting Minutemen maharishi Jim Gilchrist. Still, by the time of the South Carolina primary the issue was so quiescent that McCain suffered no real damage. "A ceiling of 18 percent of the most dedicated Republican voters in that conservative state cared so much about illegal immigration that they voted against McCain," noted David Freddoso of National Review. "Another six percent cared about it so much that they voted for him. That puts McCain's immigration deficit in the South Carolina GOP primary at 12 points overall."
The most glaring sign of how the issue was fading was, as usual in this campaign, Romney's obvious feint and switch to another issue: the economy. Bolstered by a win in Michigan, Romney dropped most of his immigration talk and started comparing John McCain to Hillary Clinton. It was almost poetic that McCain's win in Florida, the primary that shaped the rest of the race, was made possible by a 30 percent to 40 percent landslide with Republican Hispanic voters. There was no Hispanic Republican population that big on Super Tuesday, but by then the issue had faded even further. In talk radio-riven California only 29 percent of voters called immigration their top issue, and McCain won both counties on the Mexican border, Imperial and San Diego. (Romney won only three counties, none of them south of Fresno.) In McCain's own Arizona, where Republicans once viewed him vulnerable to a primary challenge on the issue, only 31 percent called it their top issue, and 53 percent of them opposed deportation.
None of this is to say Romney was the only candidate who got mired in the immigration fever swamps. Twenty-one years ago, seeking the Libertarian Party nomination for president, Ron Paul filled out a CNN questionnaire with unashamed open borders answers. Asked whether "the new immigration bill" was "solving the problem," he wrote "no" and that the way to fix it was "open all borders." Paul opposed strengthening the U.S. border patrol and making English "the official U.S. language." But in April 2006, just as the current immigration maelstrom starting churning, Paul demanded that the government "allocate far more resources, both in terms of money and manpower, to securing our borders" as the only way to solve "immigration problems and the threat of foreign terrorists." And Paul ran hard on immigration this year. An ad that saturated New Hampshire's TV screens showed Mexicans climbing over the border as a narrator intoned the ways Paul would stop the immigration mess. One piece of direct mail showed a work boot trampling the Constitution and promised the voter that "Ron Paul will end birthright citizenship."
More than a week before Super Tuesday I asked Paul why his stance had evolved or whether he was trying to just win votes. "Even under the best of circumstances I don't think people should be rewarded for breaking the law," Paul told me. So I asked what Paul thought might have happened if his earlier advice had been taken and the borders were opened. "If you'd asked me that in 1987 I'd have qualified what 'open the borders' meant," he said. "It probably would have meant at the time that we'd have a generous work program. We need workers—we should allow workers to come in." Paul was saying what about half of those GOP voters with immigration on their minds had been saying. But his campaign had marked them as deportation die-hards, and it suffered for that.
The solace for Paul is that he did not suffer quite so much as Mitt Romney. Romney, who always knew better, calculated that voter anger at illegal immigration and illegal immigrants themselves would carve out a position for him in the race. He bought the hype that this would become, indeed, the defining issue of the GOP race, and was blindsided by both the McCain comeback and Mike Huckabee's traction in Iowa. How could either of those things happen if the base was worried about immigration? Simple: He, and a lot of other people, assumed the worst about Americans and immigration.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.