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What In The Hell Is Trump Doing On Immigration?

In this week’s politics chat, we wonder what the Trump’s campaign recent rhetoric on immigration might mean. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hey, everyone. Today’s topic: Donald Trump’s shifting rhetoric on immigration policy. Trump is scheduled to give a speech on this topic tomorrow, and he will ostensibly lay out some concrete proposals. (Maybe?) But in the meantime, I wanted to talk about the politics of immigration and what the Trump campaign is doing.

First, though, our dear colleague Clare Malone is vacationing in Cleveland this week, so we’re instead joined today by Anna, who mostly reports on public health for us but has covered the immigration debate pretty extensively too — welcome, Anna!

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, senior writer): Hello!

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I was going to make fun of “vacationing in Cleveland.” But people from Michigan actually vacation in Cleveland, or at least Sandusky (Cedar Point! Woo-hoo!).

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I’m vacationing in NYC this week. The subway is the best.

anna: I vacationed in both Cleveland and Sandusky just about every year of my youth. Going to Cedar Point as part of a physics class field trip was somewhat of a life-defining moment for me.

micah: So, NPR has a good rundown of all the disparate, sometimes-conflicting things Trump and his campaign have said about immigration in the past couple weeks, but here’s the gist: Trump ran on a hardline immigration position during the Republican primary, calling for the immediate deportation of all undocumented immigrants, for example. Lately, though, he’s made noise about seeking a more “humane” position.

What’s going on? Is Trump making a late play for Latino voters?

natesilver: I think Trump is getting advice from five different people, and they’re all telling him different things, and he repeats the last thing about immigration he heard.

anna: I don’t think he’s just making a play for Latino voters, Micah. His build-a-wall-and-remove-11-million-people stance isn’t popular with a lot of voters.

harry: When someone is losing, they start throwing stuff up against the wall. That’s what’s going on, in my opinion.

micah: Yeah, it seems like even if he shits positions, Anna, voters won’t forget about his old one.

* “Shifts,” that should say.

natesilver: I think “shits” is more accurate tbh.

micah: We can’t publish that.

harry: Trump is playing right into the Clinton critique that he isn’t ready to be commander in chief — shifting positions, then getting angry that people are saying he is flip-flopping.

anna: A lot has been written about the fact that flip-flopping or shifting or whatever you want to call it doesn’t seem to be held against Trump in the same way it has with previous candidates. But I do wonder if this might hurt his image with his early core of supporters.

micah: So, that question is interesting … We’ve found that immigration has become a really important issue in GOP politics — it’s one of the most predictive in who identifies as a Republican and who supports Trump. Doesn’t that suggest that if he softens on immigration, some of his core supporters might abandon him?

natesilver: Trump doesn’t have very many core supporters — his favorability rating is only about 35 percent — so the ones he does have are a pretty hearty lot.

micah: But his hardline immigration stance seems like one of the main reasons that 35 percent like him.

natesilver: But I’m not sure if those supporters give a damn about the substance of immigration policy. If you ask people substantive policy questions about immigration — even if you ask Republicans — the answers are surprisingly centrist.

Most of Trump’s hardcore supporters live in areas where there aren’t very many immigrants. Immigration is a symbolic issue, instead, that candidates wield to prove they’re not part of a corrupt establishment.

anna: Right, so if he’s seen as pandering to the rest, couldn’t that hurt him with those hardcore supporters?

micah: I guess, intellectually, I would think this would hurt him. Yet … I don’t think it will.

natesilver: Look, he’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on appealing to that 35 percent — probably to his ultimate detriment. But it also means he has some credibility to lose.

harry: Trump has two problems. The first is that an unusually large segment of Republicans dislike him. The second is that an even larger segment of general election voters dislike him. And many general election voters have an unfavorable view of Trump because of his divisive comments on race and immigration — 59 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, for example, said “the way Donald Trump talks appeals to bigotry.” And so what happens is Trump is trying to play both sides, and to me seems like he’s playing none. He is losing the general electorate and getting a smaller percentage of Republicans than Clinton is of Democrats.

natesilver: And he’s also doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on bigotry — which is why he probably won’t convince anyone with this shift, if there’s even a shift.

anna: On the other hand, his early talk of building a physical wall and evicting 11 million people is … absurd, at best, when you think about making it a reality, so, as Nate was saying, this could be seen as a positive evolution for him by Republicans who were turned off by some of his early remarks on immigration. I keep reading quotes from voters saying “that was just a starting point for negotiating….”

micah: Yeah, maybe his supporters will view his shifting positions in that more positive light — i.e., “he’s a negotiator.”

Let’s say he does soften his position: Will it have any chance of bringing wayward Republicans (let’s say, suburban white women) back into the GOP’s camp?

natesilver: “Any chance” is a low bar, but I basically think he won’t convince anyone, especially since he’s handled it so clumsily.

harry: Who can say? But the fact that his favorable ratings have been so bad for so long suggests to me that it will be very tough.

micah: IDK … he’s been a bit more scripted/traditional over the past couple weeks and has gained in our election forecasts. Moreover, there’s like, say, 10 percent of voters who are conservative and normally vote Republican but who so far are saying they’ll vote third party or are undecided. Aren’t those voters kind of low-hanging fruit? If Trump can just convince people he’s not a bigot?

anna: Yeah, isn’t Clinton’s favorability rating pretty bad as well? If he can convince people that it’s just part of the Trump show, couldn’t that win some people over?

harry: Wait a minute. He hasn’t really gained per se as much as Clinton has lost.

natesilver: Yeah, exactly. Trump’s at 37.7 percent in our national polling average. Where was he three weeks ago? 37.8 percent. No change. Clinton’s declined some, though.

I think what you see is her convention bounce wearing off, along with maybe a couple of very bad news cycles for Trump just after the convention given his comments about the Khan family.

It’s not obvious that his “turnaround” has actually been successful per se.

micah: OK, but then let’s play Trump adviser for second: What would you have him do on immigration? Anna, is there more of a consensus position on immigration policy that Trump can adopt?

anna: I might have said yes back in 2013 when the Gang of Eight was together pushing immigration reform. During an election season? I’m not sure there is. There’s a safer route, but he’s made this a key rallying issue, which probably helped him early on.

micah: I mean, I guess Trump’s winning the nomination suggests that his hardline stance was the GOP primary vote’s consensus on immigration — maybe he can’t square the circle between that group and the Gang of Eight folks.

harry: I think he just shouldn’t talk about it.

natesilver: I’m not sure that immigration is the issue I’d have pivoted on, especially if I were going to do it so clumsily.

Pivoting to the center on economic issues might have been more interesting in some ways.

harry: He should talk about Social Security.

anna: Agree, Nate, but isn’t it a big part of what got him out ahead of the rest early on in a busy race? Can he just stop talking about it now and inspire the same fervor at rallies? Actually, yeah, he probably could. And silence could probably be an effective Band-Aid on that wound while he talks about economic policy.

micah: Well, he’s doing the exact opposite, giving a “MAJOR!!!” speech on immigration Wednesday; what will you all be watching for?

natesilver: I think I have a fantasy football draft so I’ll be watching for whether there’s a run on wide receivers.

harry: I’m less interested in what he says than how he says it. That’s part of what got Trump in so much trouble in the first place. It’s one thing to say we’re going to build a wall. It’s another to talk about Mexicans as rapists.

micah: Nate, you’re playing into people’s stereotypes about how we don’t care about issues.

natesilver: 180 degrees wrong! It’s not a fucking policy speech!

micah: It might be.

natesilver: It would be disrespectful to policy speeches to see it as a policy speech.

harry: This chat is rated R.

micah: The speech hasn’t even happened yet! How will you know if it’s a policy speech if you don’t watch?

natesilver: Anything he says carries no substantive weight because he’s already taken every available position on the issue.

anna: There’s been a lot of talk of “humane” and “fair” policy recently from his camp. The wall, deportation, ending birthright citizenship … that’s all against immigrants. I wonder if he’s really going to address the humanity of immigrants as has been suggested.

micah: What would that look/sound like?

anna: What the process would be for a touchback system, for example.

To be clear, I’m not expecting humanity! But all of his ideas (Nate’s right, they aren’t policy) so far are so completely absurd. They aren’t feasible.

harry: Again, this isn’t about substance. It’s about tone.

anna: You’re probably right for the horse race that it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says, Harry, but I don’t know how he walks his current immigration stance back without injecting some policy into the rhetoric. For voters who care about immigration, he’ll need some viable policy to make them believe what he’s saying. Then again, as you’ve both said, most voters don’t care that much about immigration.

natesilver: If nothing else, I think we’ll learn something about who has his ear from the speech.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.