Media coverage of the 2008 presidential election identifies immigration as a key issue for the U.S. electorate--even though, according to most polling, it does not rank as a top priority for voters.
CNN's Republican debate on November 28 opened with a full 35 minutes devoted to the issue of immigration. Washington Post columnist David Broder (11/15/07) referred to "illegal immigration" as one of two major "icebergs ahead for the Democrats" in the upcoming presidential race (ex-President Bill Clinton being the other purported shipwrecker).
Columnist and CBS correspondent Gloria Borger (U.S. News & World Report, 11/10/07) declared immigration a "killer issue," and that Democratic candidates "had better get started" on a solution: Independent voters are unhappy that nothing has been done on the matter, and anyone who wants to be president needs to keep independent voters happy." Borger approvingly quoted Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who thinks the time has come for a "welfare moment"--an allusion to Bill Clinton's pledge to "reform" welfare in 1992.
NPR decided to make immigration one of the three issues of concern in its December 4 Democratic presidential debate. (Iran/Iraq policy and China were the others.) The following day's New York Times report on the debate (12/5/07) was headlined "Immigration, a Relentless Issue, Confronts Democrats in an Iowa Debate." The paper alleged that the issue of immigration is "a topic looming large both in the Iowa caucuses next month and in the general election."
That's not what voters have been saying, though.
Until it became clear that the economy was almost certainly heading into a recession, the Iraq War topped the list of priority issues for both Democrats and Republicans--despite media attempts to downplay the issue (FAIR Media Advisory, 12/19/07).
"In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be," wrote Peter Beinart in the Washington Post (12/3/07). NBC Nightly News reporter Savannah Guthrie (12/15/07) declared: "For many, many months, the smart thinking was this was going to be all about the war in Iraq, but that's kind of been pushed aside to some degree. Now issues about immigration and the economy [are] taking center stage."
Such assertions were made even as Iraq continued to be the issue that voters themselves said was at the top of their list of concerns. "It's raised twice as often as the next-ranking issue, the economy," USA Today reported (12/5/07) based on the paper's Gallup polling (11/30/07=12/1/07). Another poll (L.A. Times/Bloomberg, 11/30/07=12/3/07) found only 15 percent of Americans ranking immigration as one of the top three issues of concern to them. In fact, noted L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten (12/1/07), "more than nine out of 10 Americans think something matters more than immigration in this presidential election."
Even when the question is posed in terms of "illegal immigrants"--a politically loaded phrase--public opinion is, as on most political issues, quite mixed. But "a strong bipartisan majority--60 percent--favors allowing illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements," according to the most recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll (L.A. Times, 12/6/07).
The polling data suggests that immigration is not at all the "relentless issue" the New York Times makes it out to be. If anything can be described as "relentless" about the issue of immigration, it's the way it has been pushed by the media.
CNN's Lou Dobbs--who has a record of touting inaccurate xenophobic claims and promoting white supremacists on air (see Extra!, 1=2/04; Intelligence Report, Winter/05)--led into CNN's Republican debate (11/28/07) by calling immigration advocates "misguided abject fools" who are "working to subvert the will of the majority of the people of this country." Given the clear disdain U.S. media are showing for Americans' priorities for the upcoming election, one would think it was not the U.S. electorate but Dobbs himself whose vote was going to determine the 2008 presidential race.
Of course, time spent talking about immigration--which appeals to more conservative voters--is time not spent talking about, say, the economy or the Iraq War. This could very well be smart politics for Republican presidential candidates; as GOP pollster Whit Ayres put it (USA Today, 12/4/07), "Anything that pushes Iraq farther down the agenda is good news for Republicans." But media shouldn't mistake GOP campaign priorities for evidence of a shift in the public's concerns.