A lot of the punditry commenting on Jeb Bush’s flirtation with a presidential run has focused on his views on immigration. But where do Republicans actually stand on immigration? Nate Silver argues that Republicans actually have fairly centrist views on immigration. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, traditionally a stalwart of the GOP, has pushed hard for comprehensive immigration legislation Large donors, who seem eager for Jeb to enter the race, generally back immigration reform. Of all the leading Republican presidential possibilities, only Ted Cruz wholeheartedly embraces a hard line on immigration – and I doubt strongly that he will be the nominee. Being “soft-liners” on immigration didn’t keep George W. Bush or John McCain from winning their party’s presidential nomination.

On the other hand, House Republicans have seemed pretty opposed to a “path to citizenship.” (Or would they rather just not vote on the issue?) The 2012 Republican platform denounces “amnesty,” calls for stricter workplace enforcement, and does not mention any form of a DREAM Act. Marco Rubio’s presidential prospects took a beating last year when he took the lead on immigration legislation, similar to what happened to John McCain in 2007. Even if Republicans overall hold moderate views on immigration, perhaps those who hold more restrictionist views care about the issue more strongly. (There’s enough variation in polling on immigration to make one suspect that many citizens don’t have real views about it). Polls show that Republicans – especially conservative Republicans – have more hardline opinions relative to other voters. To put it another way, while most Republicans may not be immigration “hawks,” most immigration “hawks” are Republicans.

But what constitutes an immigration “hawk?” There we run into a problem. If I want to know who is “pro-life,” I can ask the National Right to Life Committee. If I want to know who is “pro-gun,” I can ask the National Rifle Association. But there’s no large, respected organization that backs a more restrictionist approach to immigration. The two best known groups both have extremist baggage, leading most politicians to avoid being associated with them. The nation’s most vocal immigration “hawks” have been radio talk show hosts, who have a professional interest in being as provocative and strident as possible. There are no set standards for deciding who has acceptable views on immigration.

The immigration issue could also hurt Jeb Bush if it keeps him from winning support from key constituencies. He’s unlikely to win support from Tea Party activists, but he does have a warm relationship with social conservatives. Many evangelical leaders back immigration reform, but it’s not clear that their followers share those views.

So I have trouble reading the politics of the GOP on immigration. I’m guessing that, while it is not irrelevant, it is not a litmus-test issue like abortion or gun control. But I just don’t know.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.