Two excellent things to read this morning about immigration as an issue, and how it is playing out in the Republican nomination contest and how it may affect the general election. Ed Kilgore has been (correctly I believe) emphasizing the effects of Rick Perry's immigration policy and comments on his recent collapse in the polls; Jamelle Bouie has a good item focusing on the general election effects of Republican politicians alienating potentially sympathetic Latino voters. I recommend both.
What strikes me as interesting about immigration as an issue is the contrast with abortion, which has also been in the news lately thanks to Herman Cain's inability to talk about it properly. Sarah Kliff has a good item out about the history of abortion as an issue, but what I think is worth adding is that abortion as an issue has very much been driven (I think especially on the pro-life side) by organized groups. That's pretty normal in party politics; the same is true about guns, and to a large extent taxes, on the Republican side. I don't think the same is true about immigration. While there are organized anti-immigration groups, I don't see them as having the same sort of influence over the debate at all. Instead, immigration as an issue is far more driven by ordinary voter attitudes, which are then reflected back and (in the course of that process) further inflamed by opportunistic politicians.
The other part of this is that immigration is far more cross-cutting than most issues. On the Republican side, business lobbies generally support efforts (such as those supported by George W. Bush and John McCain) to ensure a ready supply of inexpensive labor -- which means, in practical terms, supporting easy immigration policies of one kind or another. There are well-known interest group clashes on the Democratic side, as well. But I think what interests me most during the nomination process is that because it's more voter-driven than group-driven, it's a much harder issue for candidates to deal with. There's simply no one with any authority at all to assert what the correct position on the issue is, or what bills or language you're supposed to use to be there. And so it's easy to see how any candidate could wind up entangled in the issue, just as Perry was recently.
I think if you add that up it means that Perry was probably right to go after Mitt Romney on immigration, and he should probably keep pushing.