Fareed Zakaria made a provocative argument on his CNN show over the weekend that President Donald Trump has lost the current battle on immigration by enacting a policy that has drawn bipartisan scorn and crossed ethical boundaries.
But – and this is the larger point – Trump has also made immigration the dominant political conversation heading into the summer. And many of the voters who vote because of immigration may prefer Trump and his policies.
Video of Zakaria’s comments are below, along with a portion in text:
Zakaria: Democrats are exultant that Donald Trump had to reverse his policy of separating immigrant families at the border. And there is good reason to celebrate. The policy was mean-spirited and unnecessary. But I do wonder whether Trump’s retreat will prove to be as damaging to the President as liberals think.
The President’s cruelty made it easy to oppose his policy, but in their delight at the Trump administration’s latest missteps, Democrats may be walking into a trap. The larger question is surely, should the country enforce its immigration laws, or if circumvented, should we just give up? … Immigration has become an issue that motivates a large group of Americans passionately, perhaps like no other. Some of this might be rooted in racism, but it also represents a kind of heightened nationalism.
He went on to draw parallels between Trump’s use of immigration in the context of nationalism today and the use of anti-socialism in the context of nationalism by Republicans like Ronald Reagan in the past.
It was a compelling argument, and ended with the idea that voters respond to simple ideas over nuance. And Trump is selling a very simple idea of protecting the US from immigrants.
Zakaria’s point was a large one, but how about applying it to the 2018 midterms. What does the evidence suggest?
A Pew poll released this month – and conducted largely before the splitting of families at the border showed Democrats with a 14-point advantage on the issue of immigration, which suggests they are winning the immigration argument.
But there are also some other numbers that back up what Zakaria said.
For instance, when Pew asked in January of 2017 what problem was most important to voters, immigration ranked sixth behind race relations and racism, Donald Trump, the economy, health care and unemployment. No more. In their poll released June 20, immigration ranked as the top single problem, with more than 10% of Americans saying it was the top issue.
And who is it the top problem for? Republicans. As the Pew researchers wrote: “Immigration is far and away the top problem cited by Republicans and Republican-leaners: 17% say this, compared with fewer than 10% who cite any other issue.”
Not only is immigration the most important issue, it’s also the issue people want to hear their candidates address the most. Nineteen percent listed immigration, far outstripping health care at number two with 13%. Republicans are more interested in hearing about immigration, too, with 21% saying they wanted to hear about it from candidates compared to 18% of Democrats.
Trump very much wants the election to be about immigration, and he’s not afraid to use the current situation. While Republicans control Congress, he’s complained incessantly on Twitter that Democrats are standing in his way on the promised border wall and on border security.
When Republican’s couldn’t coalesce around an immigration bill in the House last week, he tweeted repeatedly that the fix was to elect more Republicans.
There’s widespread opposition to the idea of separating families at the border to prosecute undocumented parents; two-thirds of Americans disapprove of it. But a large majority of Republicans (58%) approve.
A majority does not have to support an issue in order for it to work, politically, for a politician. That’s especially true when the politician’s name is Donald Trump.
Most Americans disapprove of Trump’s proposed border wall, too. Fifty-four percent opposed it and only 41% supported it in exit polls for the 2016 election, which Trump won.
Even more Americans (80% in a CNN poll this month) support allowing people brought as children to the US to stay in the US. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from trying to end the program and force Congress to vote on it.
That opposition to a border wall has remained steady. Sixty percent of Americans opposed a border wall in a March CBS/NYT poll. But it’s still the single top policy issue Trump is pushing.
He manufactured a crisis at the border – the separation of families from children – where there had been none and commandeered the nation’s attention. He’s pushing it right to the top of the conversation list, which could be helping him, even if most people disagree with him on it.