Off to the Races

Why Trump’s Immigration Switch Won’t Move the Needle

The GOP nominee’s shift is unlikely to drive away core supporters or attract new ones.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Aug. 25, 2016, 8 p.m.

The topic du jour is Donald Trump’s attempted walk-back of his position on immigration—roughly speaking, from an absolutist policy to one that’s merely tough. The operative question is whether he can strike a balance, enticing into his column the undecided voters that he previously alienated with his “send ‘em all back” position, while simultaneously holding onto those who supported his original, hard-line position. This is essential to his winning the election; he cannot win with just the support he currently has, as he is now a handful of percentage points and dozens of electoral votes shy of winning this election.

My hunch is that there is both good news and bad news for Trump in this move. I don’t think he will alienate many of his core supporters with this attempted rhetorical and substantive walk-back, but it’s also likely that he won’t win over many new backers with this maneuver.

When Trump said in Iowa back in January that, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” no truer words were ever spoken. Trump’s voters would walk on hot coals for him. There is nothing he could say or do, or anyone else could say about him, that would appreciably diminish his current levels of support. For example, the fact that a significant share of conservative, evangelical Christians can support this vain and profane, thrice-married, once pro-choice casino owner who knows so little about the Bible as to refer to “Two Corinthians” and whose wife at least once posed for a nude photo shoot is worthy of contemplation. If they haven’t abandoned him yet, they won’t. His nonpolitician credentials are so well established that even a classic political hedge is unlikely to tarnish his reputation. Many will just say, “he’s doing what he has to do, he’s not really changing his position.” But at the same time, this substantive adjustment of his position on immigration isn’t likely to win over those whom he previously offended, even those who are exceedingly unenthusiastic about backing Hillary Clinton. They won’t believe he’s really changed either.

Let’s face it: This will be a “wince” election with a large segment of the electorate grimacing as they cast their ballot, not happy about their choices at all. The drumbeat of negative stories about additional Clinton emails and at least the appearance of inappropriate dealings between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department prevent many hard-core Trump critics from feeling good about their choice, but is unlikely to turn many back the other way. While the Clinton Foundation undoubtedly has done a lot of good things for needy people around the world, the optics of foundation staff serving as a go-between for those seeking an audience with or favor from the secretary of State—much as that’s the bread and butter for most Washington lobbyists—are terrible. Did the foundation really need that much money or go that far to raise it, throwing appearance to the wind? Clearly there is a long history of tone deafness to appearances that has plagued the Clintons, and something doesn’t have to be criminal to be inappropriate or at the very least to look bad.

All of this is why this race is likely to stay as close as it is. If Clinton goes on to win this election, as I think she will, one would hope that she would populate her administration with staff that would use better discretion than those who have worked for Bill and Hillary Clinton in the past. Many have observed that President Clinton could have been a much better or even great president had he not had certain shortcomings and allowed certain practices, e.g. using the Lincoln Bedroom as a bed-and-breakfast for generous political donors.

This election should be over and it isn’t, not quite, and it’s not the Clinton campaign’s fault. It is the fault of those at the top, who discounted that much of this would ever be public or held against them. I wonder if a lesson has been learned.

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