The Winning Issue No Republican Seized

Analysis shows GOP voters were with Trump on immigration from the very beginning

In retrospect, it should be no surprise that Donald Trump was able to ride immigration to the Republican nomination: The issue was there for the taking, and he was the only GOP candidate who picked it up.

James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist who analyzed public polling in a research paper published online by the Center for Immigration Studies, said the sentiment of Republican voters was not ambiguous as the 2016 election kicked off last year.

“It doesn’t strike me as very surprising that he did what he did.”

“It doesn’t strike me as very surprising that he did what he did,” he said.

Indeed, Gimpel said, the mystery is not why voters responded so strongly to Trump. It’s why none of his 16 competitors for the nomination seized the issue as forthrightly as he did. Trump’s stream-of-consciousness announcement speech after descending the elevator in Trump Tower in New York in June 2015 drew ridicule from the media and guffaws from his rivals.

They’re not laughing now.

Trump quickly jumped to the top of the polls and steamrolled the competition in the Republican primaries. Gimpel said it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention that Trump’s stands on immigration were in line with the base.

Among the public at large, there has been little appetite for more immigration, according to Gallup polls dating to 1999. Gimpel’s report notes that an average of 36 percent of respondents over that time period favored keeping immigration the same, while 44 percent on average preferred decreasing immigration. Since 2014, support for increased immigration never has exceeded 27 percent. Among Republican, support has been even lower — 14 percent.

[lz_table title=”How Serious a Problem is Illegal Immigration?” source=”CBS/New York Times”]Percentage saying “very important”

Other surveys indicated that Republican voters care much more about immigration than Democrats and independents. Combining the results of two polls taken last year by CNN/ORC, Gimpel pointed out that 74.1 percent of Republicans rated the issue as “extremely” or “very important,” compared with 58 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents.

Republicans also have been more likely to put a priority on stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and deporting them. Averaging CNN polls from December 2014 and July 2015, Gimpel’s report notes that 67.8 percent of Republicans favored that policy, while 32.2 percent favored policies providing for legalization. That compares to 71.3 percent of Democrats who favored legalization and 28.7 percent who said stopping the flow of or deporting illegal immigrants.

Polls also show a sharpening of the partisan divisions on immigration. Gimpel points to CBS/The New York Times survey showing that the gap between Republicans and Democrats who rated illegal immigration as a “very serious” problem grew from 10.3 percentage points in 2007 to 23.9 points in 2010.

[lz_table title=”Views on Illegal Immigrants” source=”Pew Research Center, May 2015″]Party,Stay,Deport

In short, Gimpel said, it did not take a political genius to recognize the saliency of immigration as an issue. Some critics of mass immigration agreed.

“Not that we agree with everything [Trump] says, but we think he made a very smart move — whether it was calculated, or not — to talk about immigration on the day he announced his candidacy,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.

NumbersUSA favors reducing levels of legal immigration, although Chmielenski said the group prefers to talk in terms of immigration’s impact on jobs, wages, and social services rather than the bombastic rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

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With the evidence of popular opinion so stark, why did all of the professional politicians opposing Trump fail to embrace the New York billionaire’s message? Gimpel and Chmielenski offered two theories — an effort to soften the party’s image among Hispanic voters and a desire to keep big donors from the corporate world happy.

Both said many of the well-heeled funders of Republican campaigns want to maintain the free flow of immigrants into the United States in order to keep wages low.

It is not just campaign contributions that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination were worried about, though. After 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama, an “autopsy” commissioned by the Republican National Committee concluded that the party needed to do more to appeal to the rapidly growing Hispanic demographic. Party elders decided that a hard-line stand against illegal immigration would doom the GOP for years.

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Gimpel said the general public and Latinos, in particular, certainly have views that are more accepting of immigration than Republicans. But he said candidates who adopted a general election strategy before the first Republican vote was cast jumped the gun.

“That’s possible, but you do have to get through the primary,” he said.

Chmielenski said the GOP’s autopsy focused too intensely on winning Hispanic voters while ignoring alternate paths to electoral success. He pointed out that Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance, have relatively few Hispanic voters but a combined 38 electoral votes. Those states, along with Florida — where the Hispanic bloc is more conservative because of its large Cuban population — would have changed the outcome.

“What the people at the RNC and the authors of the report miss is that if Romney had flipped a few states … he would have won that election,” he said. “I don’t think [Trump] was thinking about the electoral politics of it … but someone like John Kasich was. Someone like Marco Rubio was.”

It is something that the 2016 also-rans might consider as they watch Trump accept the nomination on Thursday.