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South Carolina Exit Polls Provide More Evidence Trump’s Extreme Immigration Agenda May Be More Liability Than Asset

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This past weekend, indicted former President Donald Trump won the South Carolina GOP primary by predictably defeating Gov. Nikki Haley in her home state but by a smaller margin than expected: 59.8% to 39.5%. CNN exit polling of the race provided some insights into the divide between the hard-core MAGA Trump voters and other GOP primary voters, particularly on the issue of immigration. Much like the results from last month’s New Hampshire race, these numbers are worth digging into, suggesting the extreme nativism of Trump’s agenda isn’t the electoral silver bullet they think it is.   

According to South Carolina exit polling, the vast majority of Haley’s voters, 70%, said they believed that undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. should be offered a chance at legal status. Just 25% of her voters said undocumented immigrants should be deported. While most Trump voters expressed pro-mass deportation sentiments, 29% joined Haley voters in saying they support a path to legalization. While Haley has not campaigned as a sensible moderate on this issue, there is a not insignificant part of the core GOP base voters unswayed by the relentless nativist attacks that depict immigrants as an existential threat to the nation.    

It should not get lost in any reporting on Saturday’s results that this is the second consecutive GOP primary race, following New Hampshire last month, where exit polling has shown that the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant messaging, promotion of racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories, and virulent ethnic nationalism continue to be a failing message outside of the MAGA base. This is significant when nearly 30% of Trump’s base in the state is splitting with him on his signature issue. 

The key toplines from these numbers:

  • There are cracks in the support, even amongst solid GOP base voters in the extreme and unworkable deterrence-only approach.
  • The massive investment in nativist attacks is not nearly as dominant as an electoral issue as such an investment would suggest.
  • For battleground campaigns, there is more evidence that the immigration crackdown crowd is locked in for MAGA Republicans, but others are interested in a both/and approach.

This number closely mirrors the results we saw in the New Hampshire race, where 28% of Trump voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered legal status, while 76% said they should be deported. Meanwhile, 68% of Haley voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered legal status, while 23% said they should be deported.

Overall, 42% of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said undocumented immigrants should be offered a chance at legal status, while 55% said they should be deported. This is a bit larger than the results we saw in South Carolina, where 32% of GOP primary voters overall said they favored legalization. That is 32% of the GOP solid voting base who is turning out in an uncharacteristically uncompetitive primary. 

And remember, this is a GOP primary contest where the likely nominee has promised mass detention camps, defying the Constitution by denying full citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S., and “the largest deportation effort this country has ever seen” to mass purge millions of immigrants, just to name a couple of aspects of his dystopian plans. So to see anywhere from 32% to 42% of GOP primary voters say that they believe that undocumented immigrants deserve a chance to stay in the U.S. should be interpreted as a clear blow to candidates’ nativism.

Unfortunately, we’re still seeing the lazy narrative that the GOP’s abhorrent rhetoric (like Trump echoing the words of Adolf Hitler and top Republicans refusing to condemn it) and anti-immigrant attacks are the secret sauce that will unlock victory for extreme candidates. Sure, it moves the MAGA base. But as the splits in New Hampshire and South Carolina show, this is not a winning political message that squares with the thinking of a majority of the American people, who support a pathway to legalization and border security. 

While it wasn’t a GOP presidential primary race, the recent special election where Democrat Tom Suozzi defeated Republican Mazi Pilip to represent NY-03 in Congress further indicates that nativism isn’t the silver bullet that Republicans want us all to believe it is. If there was one race where this strategy should’ve worked, it was this one. It didn’t.

“Republicans made immigration their top issue, spending $9.5 million on anti-immigrant ads, according to data compiled from AdImpact,” America’s Voice Political Director Zachary Mueller wrote in his must-read analysis. “Republicans spent four times as much on the issue than any other issue. They believed it was what would drive their voters to the polls.”

Voters got to the polls, for sure. But it was to elect Suozzi by an eight-point margin. “Critically, Suozzi did not cower from the issue of immigration, allowing the GOP solely to define it as many Democrats have done,” Mueller continued. “He rightly called out Pilip and Republicans for their lack of credibility on the issue.” He endorsed a “both/and” approach focusing on border security and the need for a pathway to citizenship.

Election results in New Hampshire and South Carolina could also be a sign that Trump’s support among Republicans has weakened. While Trump is being treated by his party as an incumbent, he’s certainly not getting incumbent numbers, Josh Marshall wrote at TPM.

“It’s plenty to make Trump the nominee,” Marshall wrote. “But I think we have to be honest and say that 40% of the electorate in a deeply Trumpy state like South Carolina voting against Trump is a huge showing of opposition precisely because the nomination race is effectively over.” By comparison, President Joe Biden got over 95% of voters in South Carolina’s Democratic primary. 

Still, despite losing NY-03 and sharp disagreements on immigration within GOP primary voters, don’t expect this one-trick elephant to drop its one trick. “According to data from AdImpact, Republican-aligned outfits have spent $41M running 329 unique ads pushing their anti-immigrant agenda so far this year,” Mueller continues. “They intend to make this their top issue in 2024 because it inflames their base. That happened in NY-03, but even in that district, with all the money and media, they couldn’t win.”