Xenophobia may mobilize the hardcore base, but it also mobilizes swing voters and infrequent voters who oppose the GOP’s divisiveness and cruelty
Washington, DC – Facing a primary challenge and seeking to tee up a presidential run, Texas Governor Greg Abbott is leaning hard into xenophobia and ugly anti-immigrant politics. Doing so has earned him Trump’s endorsement in Texas and a joint visit to the border this week to stoke fear and rile the base.
Abbott has declared a disaster at the border; he’s threatening to hurt immigrant children; and his number two – Lt. Governor Dan Patrick – is using the language of an immigrant “invasion,” the same language that led a deranged white nationalist to drive to El Paso to kill 23 people. Tomorrow, Abbott and Trump will share the stage with Sean Hannity at a Fox “town hall.”
It’s all playing well on Fox News. But the Rio Grande Valley border counties – the area the GOP pointed to as the epicenter of border encounters as VP Kamala Harris visited El Paso – are opting out of Abbott’s trumped up “disaster declaration.” Get it? The people on the ground in the “epicenter,” supposedly the most affected by the hyped-up “border crisis,” are saying, in effect, “no crisis here.”
Clearly, Abbott and Trump are speaking exclusively to their base. But how should Democrats understand and respond to the GOP’s strategy of making immigration central to the 2022 and 2024 elections? Here is our take:
Trump and his gang have tried this before. In the 2018 midterms, Trump nationalized the race on caravans and fear and it backfired.
In the run up to the 2018 midterms, Trump and many Republicans turned to red-hot race-baiting and fear mongering around “caravans and criminals.” It backfired. Democrats won the popular vote by the largest midterm margin in history, flipping 40 House seats and making huge inroads in state capitals and state legislatures. In the aftermath, Republican pollster David Winston argued that Trump’s focus on immigration – rather than the economy – cost Republicans bigly. David Drucker quoted Winston in a post-midterm column in the Washington Examiner:
The closing focus in the final days of the campaign was on the immigration/caravan message, popular with the base and those at President Trump’s rallies but also controversial and divisive, particularly with independents…The people who made their decision over the last few days voted Democratic by a 12-point margin.
Meanwhile, Democrats effectively countered Trump’s “caravans” obsession with a disciplined focus on reducing health care costs, covering pre-existing conditions and prioritizing other kitchen table issues. And when the immigration issue came up, winning candidates were prepared with strong, unapologetic support for popular solutions.
In the 2020 elections, President Biden leaned into the contrast with Trump on immigration, and it worked.
In the second and final 2020 debate, Joe Biden attacked Trump for his cruel family separation policies. He followed up by running ads that featured the debate exchange, promised to end family separation, and declared his support for putting 11 million undocumented immigrants on pathways to citizenship. It wasn’t the main issue. But immigration didn’t work for Trump, it worked for Biden. Trump was defeated by more than 7 million votes.
Recent battleground state polling: Democrats have a 10 point edge on Republicans on immigration framing.
In a recent battleground poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, Hart Research, BSP Research for America’s Voice, FWD.us, and the Immigration Hub, researchers put the Democratic and Republican immigration narratives up against each other in a head-to-head. Even after months of “Biden border crisis” hype from the right wing media ecosystem, as well as copycat coverage in many mainstream outlets, voters prefer the Democrats’ approach: 55% say it’s best to “build a functioning immigration system that processes people in a fair, orderly, and humane way;” 45% favor “more border security, more border patrol agents, and crackdowns on illegal immigration.”
Experts size it up: Republicans play to the base in a way that backfires with the middle.
BSP pollster Gary Segura recently stated of Republican reliance on nativism as a wedge issue: “they’ve paid a price in the suburbs. There are white female suburban voters who do not care for the politics of meanness.”
Similarly, Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent of the Washington Post write,
…if Abbott runs for president, he won’t have to worry that his primary opponents will accuse him of being cruel to immigrant kids. In fact, they’ll probably vow to be even harsher than he is, and the GOP primary electorate will eat it up. But the general electorate is a very different story. Republicans are facing some of their biggest challenges among moderate voters in the suburbs, for whom stories of a candidate shutting down facilities for immigrant children might not be particularly appealing.
Lesson from the battleground polling: Democrats should lean into the immigration debate.
The aforementioned battleground state polling found approximately 70 percent public support on a series of proposals to put millions of undocumented immigrants on pathways to citizenship. The polling memo states: “Democrats should push these debates to the fore as aggressively as possible and not let the immigration conversation be defined exclusively by the border.” But it adds a warning to Democrats:
Democrats have an extraordinary opportunity to take sole credit for action on the popular issue of providing citizenship to Dreamers, farmworkers, and TPS holders. However, if these efforts fail, Republicans will not be punished alone, and Democrats will share in the blame for an unsuccessful effort at reform. In particular, base Democrats who we need to show up in the 2022 midterms will be upset if undocumented immigrants remain vulnerable to deportation.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
Many in the political class assume that nativism is a potent force that swings elections in the direction of Republicans. It may have been a factor in Trump’s upset victory in 2016, but it failed or backfired in the vast majority of key races in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 – from the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2017 to the Conor Lamb special in southwestern Pennsylvania to the midterms in 2018 to the Louisiana and Kentucky gubernatorial races in 2019 to the 2020 presidential race.
The evidence is compelling. Nativism as a wedge issue is losing its edge. Xenophobia may resonate with the cul-de-sac of the Trump base in the primary electorate, but it backfires with swing voters who decry racism, division and cruelty, and it mobilizes racial justice voters from the Democratic base.
So sure, this week we will watch as a couple of hungry GOP pols go to the border to curry favor with hardcore white identity voters who are prominent in upcoming primaries. But Democrats need not fear this right-wing base strategy. They need to do what they have been doing: lean into popular solutions, and call out their opponents for their divisiveness and race-baiting aimed at distracting from the GOP’s utter lack of a substantive policy agenda. Now, with Democrats holding the majority in Congress and the White House, Democrats have to do more than lean in. They need to use their majority to produce breakthroughs that improve lives. Failure is not an option.