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Can Trump Use Hard-Line Immigration Policies To Turn Out GOP Voters?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hi, everyone!!! Ready to chat?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What? During a World Cup match? It’s the game of the tournament!

micah: We’re talking about immigration today. There’s a lot going on. The family separation issue, first and foremost, but also some House votes. There’s reporting that the White House wants to make immigration the issue for the 2018 midterms, and that they’re planning further hard-line immigration moves.

From Tuesday’s Playbook:

“The White House is making the conscious decision that divisive immigration policy — not a booming economy — should be the focus of the 2018 midterms. We can’t tell you how dumb many Republican leaders think this is.”

So, here’s the question: Is that dumb? Will a hard-right immigration message and/or policy help the White House/Republicans in 2018?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): In general elections, I think it’s going to hurt them.

The current administration policy just seems miscalibrated — taking this really hard-line approach (separating children from families) that doesn’t even seem to appeal to the entire ideological base (i.e., most Americans, including about half of Republicans, think this is a bridge too far). And this issue could engender more anti-Republican sentiment come November.

So there, I just made the Republican leaders’ argument.

natesilver: There’s maybe a world in which the White House could use immigration dexterously as a “wedge issue” to turn out its base, but that’s not the world the White House inhabits. They’re too clumsy, too indifferent as to whether individual policies are popular and too eager to fight ideological battles that they might trick themselves into believing are good politics.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Can I briefly reject the premise here, that the White House has some brilliant strategy or is making a “conscious decision” to make the midterms about immigration? There is often “Trump-did-something-crazy-so-he-must-have a strategy” coverage that likely overstates Trump’s political planning and understates his desired policy goals, like stopping NFL players from kneeling or limiting immigration.

natesilver: Yeah, I certainly think the Playbook/Axios/NYT “news analysis” style is too quick to attribute strategic motives instead of ideological ones.

Or what may just be people being dumbasses and faking their way through the strategy.

micah: I mean, they’re certainly pursuing a bunch of hard-line immigration policies.

perry: I suspect a ton of Republican candidates will run on the economy in the fall. I have no idea what Trump will say during the fall campaign, but my guess is he doesn’t either. I doubt he has a message calendar that he’ll be following, like George W. Bush or Barack Obama might have had.

natesilver: I guess one could argue that the economy (and maybe North Korea?) can be used to help Republicans hold ground among swing voters, but that won’t turn out the base.

micah: Yeah … Nate, intentional or not, you said in one of these chats a few weeks ago that if you were a Republican strategist, you would focus on ginning up base turnout. That, most likely, Democratic base turnout will be high, and so the best strategy is probably to try to counter that with your own base.

clare.malone: I said this on the podcast, but I guess it makes sense in some way to run all the Trumpy anti-immigrant ads, etc., now, during primary campaigns. But come September, you’d better have more of a message than that if you’re a Republican.

perry: Yeah, I also think that the GOP should run on cultural issues. But I’m not sure we are seeing that right now, as opposed to an ex post facto explanation for a policy blunder.

micah: OK, let’s leave aside intent for the moment though.

natesilver: But that gets to the issue of clumsiness.

Like, if you’re laser-focused on sanctuary cities, maybe you could do OK. Maybe you could use that issue as enough of a dog whistle to your base, without necessarily turning off moderates.

But stuff like separating families at the border? Curtailing legal immigration? Shutting down the government over the wall? Those are extremely unpopular measures.

clare.malone: This particular issue seems to have brought the various White House “wings” back into the foreground, and in the post-Bannon age, we mostly seem to have forgotten about the wings.

But some people think this is great policy/politics (like White House policy adviser Stephen Miller), and a lot of other people (like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen) are trying to get their way around a pretty ugly policy while not getting the president mad at them. It just seems sort of like a) bad politics and b) perhaps a sign of bad internal organization.

natesilver: I do wonder how much of it is borne out of a view — from Trump and from other senior officials in the White House — that the polls are fake and the media outrage is fake and they have their finger on the true pulse of American opinion.

perry: I think that’s closer to where I am.

They are doing this because they believe in deterring illegal immigration by basically any means necessary. But they also believe the backlash is overstated by a press that is often hypercritical of them.

micah: OK, I’m going to play devil’s advocate.

clare.malone: Great movie.

micah: Forget the separating families — that’s prima facie horrible and seems like bad politics too.

But isn’t the idea that Republicans need something beyond the economy and North Korea actually correct?

clare.malone: Why? Rule of threes?

micah: Yup.

haha, no…

Because the GOP base isn’t as enthused as the Democratic one right now.

clare.malone: You’re saying they need something that tides over the tribal identity issue.

natesilver: So talk about Colin Kaepernick or some shit.

clare.malone: ^^^^

Or just focus on wall funding.

You don’t need to do this child separation thing.

natesilver: The wall is pretty darn unpopular, though.

clare.malone: I would guess it’s more popular than separating 2,000 kids from their parents.

perry: Sanctuary cities/MS-13/NFL national anthem protests — these are all issues that 1. Trump wants to tweet/talk about instead of reciting boring economic stats; and 2. play into the negative partisanship stuff that will be used for base turnout. But talking about how terrible San Francisco or Nancy Pelosi is would do the trick as much as sanctuary cities. I don’t think Republicans need immigration policies necessarily to gin up negative partisanship, as much as they need reminders to their base that “Democrats are the party of all that stuff you hate.”

Republicans know Trump wants to talk about this kind of stuff anyway, so they have to find a way to make that part of the 2018 strategy.

micah: But it’s interesting to me that some of you — Nate, at least — seem to think that the NFL anthem stuff or Pelosi stuff is maybe a better option than immigration. (Again, put aside separating families — I feel like they’ll have to retreat on that pretty soon.)

perry: There are very few immigration ideas that unify all Republicans. The national anthem issue, in contrast, is very unifying among Republicans: 86 percent of Republicans say kneeling during the national anthem is “never appropriate,” according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll earlier this year. So is anti-Pelosi sentiment: 72 percent of Republicans view her unfavorably, according to a recent Ipsos poll.

clare.malone: Couldn’t he talk about wall stuff or, I don’t know, talk about E-Verify, things like that? I can’t help but think that coming up with a more refined Trumpian take on immigration could help them through both the primaries and the general.

perry: Republicans probably should run on identity issues writ large, with some anti-immigration rhetoric as a part of that.

That kind of messaging is challenging for Democrats. Do Joe Manchin or Claire McCaskill want to defend sanctuary cities?

natesilver: I think when you asked me to put my Republican strategist hat on a few weeks ago, Micah, the tricky part wasn’t finding something that turns out your base, but something that turns out your base without simultaneously hurting you among swing voters and also turning out the Democratic base.

Lots of people might think Trump’s NFL stance is sort of dumb, but it’s not likely the sort of thing that’s going to turn out Democrats to vote or that will greatly influence a swing voter’s decision.

micah: I bet the same is true for sanctuary cities, E-Verify, etc.

clare.malone: Basically, they picked the worst possible issue angle to make the story.

I know politicians get a lot of shit for poll-testing things but … there’s a reason to do it!

micah: “Should we do terrible shit to children?”



Not sure

Yeah, that question could have saved everyone a lot of heartache.

perry: Trump seems to be in some danger of overlearning lessons from 2016. I don’t think he won the general election because of the wall and the Muslim ban. (The primary, yes.) I do think, in general, that it helped that he was seen as taking on the cultural left. I also think it’s different when you are the person running the government and implementing policy. I’m not sure people voted for Stephen Miller-ism, even if Miller thinks they did.

clare.malone: Do we attribute any of this to, say, Chief of Staff John Kelly checking out and no one being awake at the wheel when it comes to this kind of across-the-board strategy stuff?

I’m a little curious as to how this actually got this far without the ramifications being thought through.

micah: I tend to ignore most of this kind of reporting, but there have been some stories lately about Kelly basically giving up.

natesilver: Didn’t Kelly mention the child separation policy last year as part of a plan to deter immigration?

perry: I think this policy was thought through. There is a lot of reporting about the administration having long considered it.

clare.malone: Yeah, fair point.

I take that back.

But in general, who’s doing the political strategy thinking?


If so, yikes.

micah: No one?

perry: Miller and Trump are driving this. There is some reporting to indicate that.

micah: But Miller is thinking in terms of policy, not politics, right?

clare.malone: Right.

I mean politics. Who’s driving that?

No one maybe?

natesilver: I wonder if the fact that Trump has had a few successes — or at least things he can claim to be successes — is making him feel as though he can be a little bolder.

clare.malone: Yeah, but this was in motion before North Korea.

perry: Miller thinks the politics are fine here. So does Trump. They think they won because of this stuff in 2016 and that they are doing pretty well now and this is a media storm that will blow over.

clare.malone: I think my point is, if Miller is your person running overall political strategy, not just policy, that’s a problem.

He’s an ideologue.

perry: Yeah, Clare, you make an important point: Are there are any establishment-style people left at the White House to say no to this kind of thing? Kelly favors get-tough immigration policies.

But even if he opposed this, he could not kill it. He has limited power, particularly now.

natesilver: It would be sort of ironic if Republicans were on track to just barely hold the House — and maybe make gains in the Senate — because of an improving economy, but Trump blew it over a border wall fight and a trade war with China.

Or maybe not “ironic” — just that I think that’s a plausible course of events.

micah: That seems like the likely course of events!

perry: To switch this a bit, the Democrats I talk to really want this campaign to be about health care/tax cuts/cronyism — anything but this race/identity stuff. Their general view is that every day talking about health care is good for them, and that every day talking about cultural stuff broadly is good for Trump (minus this exact policy). Are they right?

micah: Yeah, I guess I do worry a little bit that we’re underrating how hard-line an immigration policy Americans will support — Republican in particular, but also white Democrats.

I just feel like maybe this is an area where I actually don’t trust the polling all that much? 😬

clare.malone: Immigration?

micah: Yeah.

natesilver: I don’t know — maybe the fact that we’re in a Manhattan office building watching the World Cup and eating food from a fancy falafel place makes us out of touch with Real America™. But maybe that out-of-touchness manifests itself in applying our own stereotypes to Real America™ instead of trusting the polling.

clare.malone: Well, Democrats seem to be steering clear of immigration stances on the campaign trail beyond “protect Dreamers and kids.”

natesilver: Most people in Real America (where several of us are from, after all!) have fairly nuanced views toward immigration.

micah: I’m actually thinking of white Democrats more than anyone else.

clare.malone: What I’m saying is that Democrats are in primary mode on immigration too.

They can’t be seen as being too appeasing to Republicans on the issue because the GOP is popularly viewed as having gone full-throttle ideological/racial on that issue by a lot of Democratic base voters.

perry: The polling is fine. But maybe the questions are not quite framing the right discussion. The underlying question is really: “Do we have too many immigrants in America?”

And I think that question is more contested than, “Should we separate kids from their parents at the border?”

There is a sliver of Democrats who want to see decreased immigration levels, although that bloc is declining pretty sharply as immigration has become more an issue dividing the parties and the Democrats are generally the pro-immigration party now.

Per Gallup, the majority of Republicans are in the reducing immigration camp. And I agree with Micah’s implication, that if immigration were not such a party-line issue, we might see some Democrats express doubts about current immigration levels. But in this environment, Trump has made the questions so simple. “Are you for kids who have lived here their entire lives staying here?” (The Dreamers debate essentially.) “Do you want kids split from parents?”

Those are not hard questions for Democrats.

micah: Totes agree.

perry: The current framing of this issue, with Trump’s hard-line proposals being discussed, unifies Democrats but divides Republicans. It’s not the kind of wedge you want if you are the Republican president, with a huge megaphone and an ability to change the newscycle with a single tweet.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.