These pundits point to exit polls that show that immigration is ranked at the bottom of primary voters’ priorities, and that a majority of GOP voters prefer legalization to deportation. For example, long-time immigration enthusiast Jamie Weinstein [email him] sneers: “Bad news for Ann Coulter: South Carolina and New Hampshire exit polls suggest most Republican voters don’t agree with her on immigration” [Exit Polls: GOP Primary Voters Say They Support ‘Amnesty’, Daily Caller, February 20, 2016].
And the even more appalling Jennifer Rubin [email her], says that these polls give lie to the belief that “the sine qua non of conservatism is opposition to immigration. (It’s ridiculous on its face, since robust immigration and free trade are the essence of free-market economics, but it is too much to demand intellectual honesty from these voices)”. [What right-wing commentators got wrong, Washington Post, February 23, 2016]
There were three questions involving immigration.
13% of Iowa voters, 15% of New Hampshire voters 10% of South Carolina voters, and 20% of Nevada voters considered immigration the top issue, and Trump did significantly better (43% in IA; 53% in NH, 51% in South Carolina, and 62% in NV) with those voters who did. Immigration placed last in all states except Nevada, where it was third, ahead of national security.
Before analyzing these results, it’s worth considering the questions. The most striking part of the polls is how much they emphasized immigration. It’s rare that when only given four possible issues to choose from, “immigration” is listed.
In 2012, CNN listed the economy, budget, foreign policy, and healthcare. Looking over Polling Report’s collection of dozens of polls on what the top issue over the last several years, not one included immigration when four or less options were given. In fact many of the polls did not include immigration when many other issues were considered.
Similarly, it’s worth noting that the questions about Amnesty and the Muslim ban were the only policy questions CNN asked in New Hampshire and South Carolina (they did not ask any policy questions in the Iowa or Nevada entrance polls.) So, in contrast to past elections and polls where the media ignores immigration, Trump has clearly forced the Main Stream Media to cover it.
Yet the critics could say that this just shows the MSM making too big a deal out of the issue. As National Review kvetched: “For all the analysis of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz capitalizing on what’s been billed as an issue of visceral importance to the base, it’s not clear that immigration is a top concern for Republican voters in 2016.” [What Exit Polls Reveal About 2016’s GOP Electorate, by Tim Alberta, February 11, 2015]
But the fact that the vast majority of voters back the Muslim moratorium, which virtually no public figure other than Trump will support, shows how salient the issue is. Moreover, immigration is a much more specific issue than “the economy” or “national security,” and so it’s not surprising “immigration" is not the top issue. Given that most GOP candidates have the same positions on national security and the budget, immigration can still be the deciding factor for many voters who did not list it as their favorite.
What about Amnesty, i.e. a path to legalization? On its face, the results are a bit disappointing. However, it’s worth noting that the question is phrased in a misleading fashion.
It gives a binary choice between legal status (though not citizenship, which the Gang of 8 proposes) and deportation, without giving increased enforcement as an option. As the Center for Immigration Studies has shown, if you give the option for increased enforcement (rather than massive deportations] vs. Amnesty, Americans will overwhelmingly choose enforcement [Rigged Polls That Bolster the Case for Amnesty, by David Seminara, November 26, 2013].
That being said, Trump explicitly supports massive deportation. Yet even I have argued that Trump should focus more on E-Verify and less on deportation (though at this point, I’ve learned not to question Trump’s political acumen.) So I wouldn’t put too much weight in this question. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that more GOP voters support that position than actually vote for Trump.
While the wording of polls can be distorted, how politicians act and voters respond cannot. From his opening speech noting that Mexico is sending its rapists and drug dealers to America, to his repeated calls for building a wall, his strong patriotic immigration platform, to his hiring Jeff Sessions’ immigration aide Eric Miller, Donald Trump has made immigration his signature issue. At all of his rallies, he gets the strongest applause when he calls for building a wall.
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have both shifted strongly in the restrictionist direction in response to Trump. The only candidates who embraced Amnesty are John Kasich who, aside from his second place New Hampshire showing, has been at the bottom of the polls, and Jeb Bush, who will now be liquidating his Guaca Bowles.
If immigration wasn’t the issue driving the Trump campaign, why would all the candidates be going against their donors? Why would they suddenly be rejecting the conventional wisdom about the need for Hispanic votes in the general election? Why would the voters reject the pro-Amnesty candidates?
Similarly, if the American people actually want Amnesty, why can the political Establishment never manage to pass it despite the unanimous support from the entire political, business, MSM, labor, and religious elite?
Even if it was true that the GOP voters somehow supported Amnesty or didn’t care about immigration, Trump’s popularity with voters who say they support Amnesty and his overwhelming support amongst Hispanic Republicans in Nevada (where he won more than Cruz and Rubio combined), undermine the claim that immigration patriotism turns off minorities and swing voters. The fact that both Trump and Cruz both poll much higher among voters who care about immigration while Rubio and (while he was still in the race) Jeb underperformed, shows that the voters who do care about immigration overwhelmingly support patriotic immigration reform.
Trump’s appeal goes beyond immigration, yet every one of his winning qualities ultimately derives from his stance on this issue. Trump’s supporters like him for not being beholden to special interests, for being Politically Incorrect, for telling it like it is, for being a America-First nationalist, and for tearing down the Establishment. Immigration patriotism embodies all of these qualities.
Regardless of how the pundits spin it, Trump’s success is a grassroots repudiation of Conservatism Inc.’s betrayal on immigration.
Washington Watcher [email him] is an anonymous source Inside The Beltway.