New Study: Trump’s Immigration Agenda May Have Hurt Him in 2016

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“Am I out of touch? No, it’s the political science that is wrong.” Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The White House wants to be arguing about “sanctuary cities” and the “Abolish ICE” movement as voters head to the polls in November. The Democratic leadership wants to be arguing about anything else.

The reasons behind these competing preferences aren’t hard to deduce. The Republican Party’s health-care platform lacks majoritarian support among its own base, while its signature tax cut law started out unpopular — and has become even more so in recent months. Meanwhile, more exhaustive studies of the 2016 electorate have suggested that the more our political debate is centered on fiscal policy, the better off Democrats will be: In Lee Drutman’s analysis of Voter Study Group data, upwards of 70 percent of 2016 voters held left-of-center views on economic policy — while a little over 50 percent harbored right-leaning positions on so-called “identity issues” (a category that includes immigration).

This has led many operatives to presume that any story that increases the salience of immigration in America’s political debate is a good story for the GOP — even one that involves the Trump administration psychologically torturing hundreds of small children.

Sure, family separation might have looked like a political loser — but, in drawing attention to the radical left’s “abolish ICE” campaign, and breathing new life into the broader debate about border security, the whole affair was actually a net win for the White House.

Or so some pundits claimed. So far, the data suggests otherwise.

The national fight over family separation began on June 4, when Democratic senator Jeff Merkley tried (and failed) to enter a detention center that was housing migrant children who’d been taken from their parents. At that time, FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls put the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage at 5.5 percentage points; today, the party leads by 7.5 percent.

Now, month-to-month poll variations are often more noise than signal. The Democrats’ gains could be a function of which pollsters happened to release surveys in recent weeks; random errors; or the wide variety of other developments that could be plausibly influencing voter opinion (the effect of Trump’s tariffs on farm-belt exporters, for example).

Still, there’s scant evidence that the renewed national focus on immigration enforcement has benefited Republicans in any way. And a new study suggests that this shouldn’t be surprising — because, contrary to popular belief, immigration was a losing issue for Trump in 2016.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reports:

A new analysis by two political scientists offers important new data that sheds light on this debate. It suggests Trump’s immigration agenda might have been of negligible importance in his 2016 win, and that Hillary Clinton may have benefited more from the immigration debate than Trump did (that is, despite her electoral-college loss, it actually expanded her popular-vote total).


… The new analysis by Howard Lavine and Wendy Rahn of the University of Minnesota looked at 2016 national polling data from the American National Election Studies. They broke down white Americans into three groups: 44 percent of whites are “anti-immigration” and want lower immigration levels; 40 percent of whites are immigration moderates who want to keep levels the same; and 16 percent of whites are “pro-immigration” and want immigration increased.


That means a minority of whites want reduced immigration (as Trump does), while a 56 percent majority of whites are not anti-immigration, with most wanting to keep current levels. The key finding here is that Trump only marginally improved over previous Republican presidential candidates among anti-immigration whites, gaining eight percentage points among them over Mitt Romney. By contrast, Clinton improved over Barack Obama’s performance by seven points among moderates but also by a huge margin among pro-immigration whites. Together, those last two blocks of whites are larger than the anti-immigration block … And turnout was not higher among anti-immigration whites.

This analysis comes with a major caveat: Even if Trump’s immigration agenda cost him votes with the public as a whole, it still could have secured his narrow majorities in decisive battleground states. And there is evidence that this is, in fact, the case — the more negative an Obama voter’s views on the growing diversity of the American population, the more likely he or she was to defect to Trump’s camp in 2016.

Illustration: The Nation

Nevertheless, the Electoral College will not be deciding control of the House this November. And many of the most competitive contests are being fought in Romney-Clinton country — where Trump’s nativist provocations fell flattest in 2016.

What’s more, a large body of polling data suggests that the public has only grown more dovish on immigration since Trump took office. A Gallup survey released last week found a record-high 75 percent of Americans saying that immigration “is a good thing for the United States.” And that broad, pro-immigration consensus carries over to discrete policy questions — a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 64 percent of white voters believe that Dreamers should be given a path to citizenship, while just 51 percent of such voters oppose Trump’s border wall.

It remains entirely possible that Republicans are better off campaigning in defense of Trump’s immigration policies than in support of Paul Ryan’s health-care bill; the former at least motivates a significant portion of the GOP base (there is little doubt that the president’s nativist message helped him in the Republican primary, even if it hurt him with the general electorate).

But the University of Minnesota study offers an important reminder: Donald Trump’s secret weapon in 2016 wasn’t the popularity of his xenophobic populism, but rather, the anti-democratic nature of America’s electoral institutions.

And the GOP’s secret weapon in November’s midterms will be the very same thing.

New Study: Trump’s Immigration Agenda Hurt Him in 2016