by Richard C. Auxier and Alec Tyson, Pew Research Center

On Wednesday night, all eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination met in St. Petersburg, Fla. for the second CNN/YouTube debate. From the outset, immigration emerged as the most fiercely debated topic with candidates expressing their views and defending their records on the hot-button issue. Recent Pew surveys provide material for an examination of public attitudes toward the YouTube format, as well as an analysis of candidate views on immigration as compared with those of the public.

The YouTube Format and Online Videos


The CNN/YouTube debates highlight the extent to which online video viewing has moved into the mainstream. Some 5,000 videos in which members of the public pose questions to the candidate were submitted to CNN via YouTube, 2,000 more than were received for the Democrats’ CNN/YouTube debate four months ago.

Nearly six-in-ten (57%) online adults report having used the internet to watch or download video, according to a July survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Those with broadband internet connections at both home and work are even more likely to report online video use (74% do so). Unsurprisingly, young online adults (those ages 18-29) are among the most likely to view online video. More than three-quarters (76%) of young people online download and view video content.

Americans are familiar with online videos and they are also sympathetic to the format of the YouTube questions. When asked in a July survey whether they preferred journalists or regular people asking questions at presidential debates, a wide 68% majority said they preferred questions from regular people. Only 17% said they preferred questions from journalists.

This is one question on which there is broad agreement between the parties and among those with different ideologies. Roughly seven-in-ten Republicans (70%), Democrats (69%), independents (66%), conservatives (68%), moderates (70%), and liberals (68%) agree that it is better when debate questions are asked by regular people rather than by journalists. There is also broad agreement on this question across other demographic categories including age, race, gender and education.


While Americans say they prefer questions asked by regular people, the previous YouTube debate — held July 23, 2007 among Democratic candidates in Charleston, South Carolina — was rated by the public as only modestly better than other debates they had seen. The public’s most common response when asked to rate the YouTube debate was that it was “about the same” as others.

However, those who said the debate was different were more likely to say it was better than others they had seen, rather than worse. Roughly three-in-ten said the debate was better in terms of helping them learn more about the candidates, asking the candidates challenging questions and addressing a wide range of topics. Somewhat fewer (about one-in-ten) thought the debate was worse in all three of these areas.

The Immigration Debate

In what Florida Governor Charlie Crist described in his introduction to the audience as “your debate,” immigration emerged as the dominant Republican issue. The first four questions of the night all focused on illegal immigration. In this regard, Pew polling shows that the debate was reflective of the importance of immigration as an issue in the Republican presidential primary.


In an October Pew survey, 65% of Republican voters said that immigration was very important to their presidential vote, ranking it sixth out of 16 possible issues. In contrast, while half of Democrats (50%) and a majority of independents (57%) cited immigration as an issue that was very important to their vote, both ranked it near the bottom of their agendas; only three issues were ranked lower: abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage.

When asked what is the single most important issue facing the nation, 11% of Republicans cited immigration, according to the October survey. As an issue for Republican voters, immigration trails only Iraq (27%) and terrorism (14%) in importance and is viewed as more important than the economy (9%). Only 4% of both Democrats and independents say immigration is the most important problem facing the nation.

The first question of the debate was directed at former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani from a resident of Brooklyn. The questioner stated that New York City had operated as a “sanctuary city” during the mayor’s term, and asked if as president he would “aid and abet the flight of illegal aliens into this country.”

Giuliani defended his tenure as mayor, and disagreed that New York was a sanctuary city, laying blame at the federal level. “[T]he policies that we had were necessary because the federal policies weren’t working,” said Giuliani. In a June Pew survey, a majority of Republicans (51%) thought it was essential that the president and Congress revise immigration laws this year, while 36% felt that should be accomplished in the next few years, and 9% did not think the laws needed changing. The general public was in agreement, with 50% saying revisions are essential this year, 37% saying they are needed in the next few years and 7% saying the laws do not need changing.


The second YouTuber question asked if the candidates would pledge to “veto any immigration bill that involves amnesty for those that have come here illegally.”

“Yes, of course, and we never proposed amnesty,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was a leading advocate of the failed immigration reform bill this summer. No candidate would voice support for amnesty during the debate.

While the partisan audience applauded opposition to amnesty, and booed even the mention of immigration reform, Republican voters are evenly split on the question of providing amnesty to illegal immigrants currently in the country if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs, with 47% in favor and 48% opposed. Republicans however are less supportive of amnesty than are Democrats and independents among whom 60% and 56% respectively favor it. The country as a whole supports providing amnesty to illegal immigrants currently living in the country if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs by a margin of 54-39%.

The candidates may be wise to avoid the word “amnesty,” as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, while answering a later question about his state’s policy of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to earn scholarships to college. The program, said Huckabee, accomplished the goal of bringing “people from illegal status to legal status.”

Indeed, in Pew’s June survey, when the word “amnesty” is not included in the question, Republicans are 15 percentage points more favorable toward plans to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. Overall, Republicans favor “providing a way for citizenship” by a margin of 62%-33%, a similar margin to that recorded by the general public, which favors providing a way to citizenship 63%-30%.

The third question, from a member of a family-owned business, asked the candidates what they would do to keep guest workers coming to the United States. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said he would not aid any form of immigration into this country. He stated that legal and illegal immigration both lead to the loss of American jobs.

While Tancredo did not specifically address the temporary guest worker issue, his focus on job loss responds to a major worry among GOP voters. In Pew’s June survey, 30% of Republicans said their biggest concern about illegal immigration was that it hurts American jobs. This was the most cited concern not only by Republicans, but also by Democrats (39%) and independents (33%) as well. All say it is a bigger immigration concern than hurting American customs, increasing the danger of terrorism, and crime.

However, when asked in June what would be the most effective measure in reducing the number of illegal immigrants who come to the United States, only 10% of Republicans said building border fences. Nonetheless all the candidates who addressed immigration stressed the need for border security. And both California Rep. Duncan Hunter and Giuliani both specifically mentioned their plans for building such a fence. By contrast, majorities of Republicans (52%), Democrats (57%) and independents (55%) think increasing the penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants would be the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration. This action was cited only by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

Tancredo, who has made immigration the primary focus of his presidential campaign, attempted to sum up the sentiment of the debate: “I have to tell you, so far it’s been wonderful — (laughter) — because — because all I’ve heard is — is — is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo,” said the Colorado congressman.