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Let’s Not Forget: Trump Closed Hard With Xenophobia in 2018, and it Backfired Badly

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It’s clear that racial incitement and xenophobia will be the animating force of President Trump’s 2020 re-election effort. As political observers assess the related ugliness and implications, it’s worth noting that:

  • Xenophobia backfired badly in 2018 after Trump – and most GOP candidates – closed with ugly and cynical attack ads focused on caravans, criminals and “open border Democrats;” and 
  • Just maybe Trump isn’t a political genius, and just maybe racism and xenophobia won’t work for Trump in 2020.

Xenophobia backfired in 2018

Remember that Trump and many Republicans relied on a closing argument that emphasized immigration, the border and caravans. But xenophobia backfired. Democrats won the popular vote by the largest midterm margin in history, flipping 40 House seats, limiting Senate losses, and making huge inroads in state capitals and state legislatures. 

  • Republican pollster David Winston: the GOP focus on immigration in the closing days of the 2018 midterms homestretch lost votes: “The people who made their decision over the last few days voted Democratic by a 12-point margin.” Winston’s analysis showed that late-deciding voters were 59 percent less likely to back Republicans after hearing from them on immigration, and 63 percent less likely to vote for Republicans after hearing from the GOP on border security and the migrant caravans.
  • In a post-election New York Times op-ed, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote, “Democrats made big gains because Mr. Trump declared war on immigrants — and on multicultural America — and lost … Mr. Trump got more than half of Republicans to believe immigrants were a burden, but three quarters of Democrats and a large majority of independents concluded that America gains from immigration.”
  • A USA Today op-ed by Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster at Global Strategy Group, and Tyler Moran, managing director of The Immigration Hub on immigration in Pennsylvania and Colorado: “the Trump strategy backfired with some of the exact people he tried to motivate — women and independents … aligning with Trump on immigration pushed more people away from voting Republican than attracted them — by 9 points in Pennsylvania and 16 points in Colorado.”
  • National Journal political columnist Josh Kraushaar tweeted regarding immigration in the 2018 midterms, “Late deciders broke decisively against the GOP. Immigration rhetoric a major factor. You’d think Rs would have learned from Gillespie 2017,” referring to the Virginia gubernatorial contest. Following the midterms, Kraushaar added “forcing a shutdown over border security such a political loser for Trump/GOP,” pointing to post-election analysis by the DCCC: “Late deciders identified as Republicans by 16 points, but GOP lost them in the final stretch. All about immigration.”
  • The American Election Eve poll found that voters in competitive House districts recoiled from xenophobia. The poll, carried out by a consortium of researchers and sponsored by civil rights and pro-immigrant organizations, asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement, which captures the message adopted by most Democratic candidates: “In 2018, many Republicans made attacks on immigrants’ part of their campaigns. It’s obvious we need to reform our immigration policies but calling immigrants rapists and gang members accomplishes nothing. Congress should work together on bipartisan immigration reform and put the issue to rest, and address important issues like improving wages, lowering the cost of healthcare so we have more money in our pockets.” An overwhelming 86-11% agreed with the statement.
  • The leading anti-immigrant firebrands running in 2018 elections all lost – Kris Kobach, a leading architect of the nativist movement in America, ran for governor of ruby red Kansas and lost by nearly 5 percentage points; Rep. Lou Barletta, a former Mayor of Hazleton who rose to prominence as a fierce anti-immigrant hawk, ran for Senator in Pennsylvania with the support of Trump and was crushed by 14 percentage points, Virginia nativist Corey Stewart ran for the Senate and lost by 15 percentage points.

Just maybe Trump isn’t a political genius, and just maybe racism and xenophobia won’t work for Trump in 2020.

Yes, Trump drew an inside straight in 2016 and won the electoral college. And yes, midterm elections are different than presidential elections. But given recent experience and research, it is by no means clear that Trump’s 2020 strategy is a winner. 

  • Greg Sargent, writing in June 2019 in the Washington Post, notes: “There is a puzzling tendency among pundits to ascribe Trump magical powers on this issue, simply by virtue of his 2016 victory, which has left them in a defensive crouch. But the difference now is that voters have actually seen Trump’s immigration horrors in practice — and are recoiling.”
  • David Drucker, a reporter for the conservative Washington Examiner, writes “Trump attacks on ‘the squad’ drive wedge between campaign and critical voters,” noting: “Suburban women and college-educated whites sidelined doubts about Trump and provided support crucial to his victory over Hillary Clinton. But many, fed up with the president’s antics and rhetoric, defected to the Democratic Party in midterm elections two years later. Senior Republican strategists are warning that Trump’s divisive attacks on the four female minority congressional Democrats could permanently exile these key voting blocs, costing the president reelection … A veteran Republican consultant said this latest episode was a bigger political problem for Trump than his controversial response to a violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, two summers ago. ‘It’s the worst thing he has done,’ … GOP political professionals said the dust-up amounted to another example of the president paying too much attention to his loyal, grassroots base at the expense of traditional college-educated Republicans in the upscale suburbs.”
  • Ron Brownstein, a leading observer of political demographics writes for CNN, “The trade Trump is imposing on the GOP was apparent in 2016 and enormously intensified in 2018,” referring to the coalition voters driven away by Trump’s xenophobia. Brownstein also recently tweeted about the significant political risks associated with Trump’s latest racist tweets, noting: “The up for grab voters are primarily voters who approve of him on the economy but not overall. They may not tune in as heavily to this argument but it speaks directly to why so many of them remain hesitant about giving him full approval – and why he’s losing so many voters.”
  • Polling finds that Americans are growing increasingly pro-immigrant in the Trump era – with record-high percentages thinking immigration is a good thing and the public consistently backing earned citizenship for immigrants with deep ties to the U.S.

As America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry argued in a recent USA Today op-ed

If Democrats are deft and daring, they can transform immigration into [Trump’s] Achilles’ heel… His obsession with immigration fires up his core supporters but backfires badly with everyone else…[Also] Democrats need to expose Trump’s cynical motivation for obsessing about immigration. He wants to get voters focused on blaming ‘the other’ so he can keep them from focusing on kitchen-table issues — health care, retirement security, fair wages and more — that favor Democrats. He lines the pockets of his super wealthy friends, picks the pockets of ordinary Americans, and points the finger at brown and black immigrants. This is nothing less than the strategic use of racism in the service of plutocracy. Democrats need not fear this fight with Trump. They need to take it to him.