Media coverage of the 2008 presidential election identifies immigration as a key issue for the United States 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 it. Washington Post columnist David Broder recently referred to "illegal immigration" as one of two major "icebergs ahead for the Democrats" in the upcoming presidential race (ex-President Bill Clinton icing the other one).
Columnist and CBS correspondent, Gloria Borger, 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 in1992.
NPR decided to make immigration one of the three issues of concern of its December 4 Democratic presidential debate. (Iran/Iraq policy and China were the other categories.) The following day's New York Times report on the debate was headlined (in the print edition) "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."
But that's not what voters have been saying.
The Iraq War still tops the list of priority issues for both Democrats Republicans- "It's raised twice as often as the next-ranking issue, the economy," according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.
Another recent poll (L.A. Times/Bloomberg) 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 "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 on undocumented workers is, as it is 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.
Thus 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 he 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, led into CNN's Republican debate 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 vote.
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 "anything that pushes Iraq farther down the agenda is good news for Republicans." But the media shouldn't mistake GOP campaign priorities the evidence of a shift in the public's priorities.
Peter Hart is the activism coordinator and lsabel Macdonald is the communications director of the media watch group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).