The cries of children separated from their parents are difficult for most people to hear. The recent images of children being kept in chain-linked fences are difficult for many to see.
The moral implications are simple. The extent of the political fallout in November will be less clear cut.
In the latest CNN poll, 67% of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s administration’s policy that resulted in a “significant increase in the number of young children who have been separated from their parents at the border and placed in government facilities.” The policy’s unpopularity surely played a role in why the President signed an executive order aimed at ending the practice.
Democrats hope that the unpopularity of Trump’s original decision and his overall immigration policy will motivate voters on their side and sway independents in the upcoming midterms. But there is a difference between something being unpopular and something that will actually change how people feel about the President and how they’re going to vote in the midterms.
In many ways, the debate around child-parent separation is similar the one the country had around gun violence. Both emanate from deeply divisive issues, immigration and gun policy, with entrenched partisan bases. Both involve human suffering. And in reaction to that human suffering, the majority of the country has wanted action.
Take the recent gun policy debate after the school shooting at Parkland. Support for stronger gun control rose to a high not seen since 1993 with 70% in favor, which is similar to the 67% that was against the Trump’s administration child parent separation policy.
Congressional Republicans and Trump didn’t push for stricter gun control, and it didn’t really hurt their numbers. Trump’s approval, if anything, went up. Congressional Republicans didn’t see their position on the generic congressional ballot decline either.
The gun control debate was just part of a larger trend for Trump’s numbers: stability. The President’s approval rating during his term has so far been incredibly stable (and also historically low). During the last year, for example, it’s never gone below 36% or above 43% in the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregate. The monthly generic congressional ballot trendlines have also been quite stable. Democrats have never led by less than 5 points or by more than 11.
The limited evidence so far this week suggests that the debate over the border policy may not move the numbers either. While some polls such as CNN’s do show Trump and congressional Republicans taking a bit of a hit, other polls like Quinnipiac University’s do not. Perhaps more importantly, the averages don’t show it. Trump’s approval rating sits at 43% per FiveThirtyEight. That’s actually a point higher than it was at the beginning of the month. The average generic ballot this month is a Democratic lead of 7 points and at this moment the lead is 6 points. That’s right near the 8-point average it has been over Trump’s administration.
Now, it can certainly take time for an issue to penetrate through the media and then be reacted upon by voters. And the sounds and images of children are stronger than hearing politicians merely talk about a policy.
The question is whether the past week of family separations will change voters’ minds and their priorities. There are two reasons to be skeptical.
As we have seen, it’s difficult for even the most horrifying of human tragedies to remain in the news for an extended period of time, meaning the saliency of this issue could very well dissipate by November.
And the issues that tend to move people the most during the Trump presidency are those on which the President goes against what he promised his base.
In fact, Trump might face greater political risk by backing down from the policy. In CNN’s poll, 58% of Republicans said they supported Trump’s policy that led to the separation of families at the border. Quinnipiac University’s poll showed a similar level of support among Republicans.
Immigration was one of core issues for Trump during the primary and the general election, and he made his hawkish and at times anti-immigrant views well known. At a minimum, voters didn’t penalize Trump for his views on immigration. According to caucus and primary exit polls, Trump did his best in every state among Republican voters who said that immigration was their number one issue. He also won by 31 points among voters who said immigration was their most important issue in the general election against Hillary Clinton. Republicans won those same voters by 30 points in the exit poll of House races.
And while we don’t know whether this child-parent separation debate will boost the number of people who think immigration is an important issue in this midterm, polls over the last two months from CBS News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal found immigration closer to the middle and bottom part of the list of important issues for voters. The CBS News poll found that 13% listed immigration as the number one issue, while only 11% did in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.