Nativism Is Bad Politics

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Since last Tuesday, centrist pundits have been apoplectic with fear that some progressive Democrats running to the left on immigration will harm the whole party’s chances in November and beyond. The underlying assumption in this argument is that the farthest left you can go on immigration, if you want to win in a country which gave Donald Trump nearly 63 million votes in 2016, is the center, with a neat 1 to 1 ratio of appeals for the humanity of migrants with calls to “secure the border.”


A new study, however, suggests that this assumption might be completely wrong. University of Minnesota professors Wendy Rahn and Howard Lavine wrote yesterday in the New York Times:

Contrary to received wisdom, however, the immigration issue did not play to Mr. Trump’s advantage nearly as much as commonly believed. According to our analysis of national survey data from the American National Election Studies (a large, representative sample of the population of the United States), Hillary Clinton did better in the election than she would have if immigration had not been so prominent an issue. In fact, a liberal backlash seems to have contributed to Mrs. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote count.


We found that Mr. Trump did only slightly better than his Republican predecessors among anti-immigration whites. Among pro-immigration whites, however, Mrs. Clinton far outpaced John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. For example, Mr. Obama received the votes of 50 percent of pro-immigration whites in 2012, whereas Mrs. Clinton won the votes of 72 percent of that group in 2016 — a 22-point difference.

Among anti-immigration whites, by contrast, Mr. Trump improved only marginally on Mitt Romney’s showing, 79 percent to 71 percent. Perhaps most important — given the popularity of the “keep the same” position — is that immigration moderates swung 7 percentage points in Mrs. Clinton’s favor (Mr. Obama received 38 percent to Mrs. Clinton’s 45). The 2016 comparisons with 2008 and 2004 are highly similar.


What about turnout, though? Did the salience of immigration in 2016 drive more Trump supporters than Clinton supporters to the polls? In short, no. We found no evidence that pro-immigration whites were less — or more — likely than anti-immigration whites to cast ballots in 2016.


While Trump was much more overtly racist than other recent Republican presidential nominees, it’s not exactly shocking that he was barely more popular than Mitt Romney with anti-immigration white voters. The Republican Party has been trending towards nativism for years before Trump; after all, it was Romney who suggested making life such a living hell for undocumented immigrants that “self-deportation” would become a thing. It was also his rejection by Latinx voters which inspired the infamous GOP “autopsy” that called for comprehensive immigration reform. (It’s not clear that any Republican politicians actually read it.)

But even if you’re skeptical of the idea that immigration didn’t play a huge role in Trump’s victory in 2016, championing nativism as a political virtue didn’t help Ed Gillespie in Virginia, or Rick Saccone in his special congressional election in a strongly pro-Trump House district. The latest poll in the Virginia Senate race showed Tim Kaine with an 18-point lead over white nationalist Corey Stewart. A recent Pew survey showed Democrats with a 14-point lead over Republicans on handling immigration, larger than their leads on gun issues or foreign policy. And this year, more people told Gallup that they wanted to see immigrations levels increase this year and fewer people said they wanted a decrease in immigration levels than at any time that they’ve ever polled the question.

We still don’t really have any idea of how well specific policy goals like abolishing ICE might play with voters; a HuffPost/YouGov poll released yesterday (which was conducted on June 20 and June 21) was the first bit of polling released on it, and it showed that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed had never even heard of the idea.

But as the Trump administration veers further and further right on immigration, what all of these polls and studies and elections have shown is that there’s no real evidence for the position that the Democrats need to cave to the right on immigration or rush back to the pre-Trump liberal status quo in order to win elections. Which raises the question: at a point in time when Trump’s weaponization of the tools available to him seems to have made more Americans aware than ever before of just how fucking bad our immigration system is, why not advocate for something else?

News editor, Splinter

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