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Misreading the Room: During Pandemic, Trump Prioritizes Immigration Attack Ads

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Americans are more concerned with the real threat of COVID-19 than the exaggerated threat of MS-13

As Trump plans yet another trip to Arizona to again highlight his radical immigration policies, a Reuters story from Ted Hesson and Chris Kahn explores the electoral dynamics of the immigration debate. Titled Trump pushes anti-immigrant message even as coronavirus dominates campaign, the piece reveals the Trump campaign’s obsession with xenophobia – even as the evidence mounts that it is not working.

Some key points in the article:

  • Immigration is Trump’s top campaign advertising issue. “The Trump campaign spent more on immigration-themed ads on Facebook than on any other policy area from April to June, according to an analysis by Bully Pulpit Interactive … The ads focused on the border wall and criticism of Biden’s support for a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally or violated the terms of a visa.” 
  • Stephen Miller says it’s great politics for Trump. The piece quotes Stephen Miller asserting that Joe Biden’s immigration stance is “a massive political vulnerability.” 
  • Criticism of Trump strategy from Republican strategist. Consultant Alex Conant tells Reuters, “If he’s not talking about the pandemic or the economy, he is not talking about what Americans are most concerned about.” 
  • Criticism of Trump’s message from GOP pollster. Whit Ayers tells Reuters, “His message today is almost exactly what it was in 2016 … The country has changed, but the president’s message has not.”

Our take on Trump’s reliance on immigration attack ads: 

  • Trump is attacking Biden on his signature immigration position – a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – an 80% issue with the public. Based on recent polling, the vast majority of Americans believe Biden’s position is mainstream: 
    • By 82 to 13%, voters in battleground states support for “path to citizenship” (GSG for The Immigration Hub, FWD.us, and America’s Voice);
    • By 74% to 24%, voters nationwide support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in America (Hart Research for CAP Action Fund). 
    • 77% of swing state voters support a pathway to citizenship (Civis for The Immigration Hub). 
    • 68% of undecided battleground state voters support a pathway to citizenship (ALG for NILC-IJF). 
  • If immigrant bashing is a galvanizing issue on the right, why do leading nativists keep losing? In recent GOP primaries, Joe Arpaio, Kris Kobach, Jeff Sessions, and Steve King all lost. In the 2018 midterms, Senate candidates Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania and Corey Stewart in Virginia lost by huge margins. Immigration attack ads did nothing to avert the defeats of GOP candidates Ed Gillespie in Virginia (2017), Matt Bevin in Kentucky (2019) and Eddie Rispone (2019) in Louisiana. Let’s not forget the “migrant caravans” of the 2018 homestretch that did nothing to avert the largest defeat in midterm history and the flipping of 40 House seats. Our recent deep-dive report documents how in contested races from 2017 through 2019 the Republican effort to replicate Trump’s 2016 electoral strategy of running on racial grievance and xenophobia has been a stunning failure.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Trump and his campaign team seem to think that appealing to a narrow base of white grievance voters on immigration will win him reelection. But the emerging multiracial majority is fed up with Trump’s race baiting and divide-to-deflect antics. Americans are more concerned with the real threat of COVID-19 than the exaggerated threat of MS-13. Americans want leaders to bring us together and solve problems, not politicians that incite division, create chaos and fail at governance.”