A common parlor game here in Washington – one that has been played since 2016 – is “when will the GOP base break from Trump?” It didn’t happen with the Access Hollywood tape. Or the travel ban. Or Charlottesville. But, what about immigration? After all, his hardline approach on immigration was his core campaign message. His willingness to negotiate with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer on a DACA fix has already drawn blowback from his hardcore allies like Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham.
However, these frustrated immigration hardliners may soon find out what many frustrated establishment GOPers have been grappling with since 2016: on many key issues, the base takes its cues from Trump – not from the party, its leaders, or even its agitators. Where Trump leads, his party will follow.
A national survey taken by GOP pollster Neil Newhouse May 17-21, shows the power of the Trump touch. On the question of DACA, Newhouse divided the sample into two groups. One group was asked: As you may know, current immigration law protects undocumented immigrants who came to the US as minors from deportation. Do you favor or oppose continuing this provision of the law? The second group was asked the same question, BUT included in the question was President Trump’s position on the issue. That group was asked: As you may know, current immigration law protects undocumented immigrants who came to the US as minors from deportation. President Trump has so far decided to continue this program. Do you favor or oppose President Trump's position on this issue?
Overall support for the provision protecting undocumented minors from deportation didn’t vary all that much from one group to the next. Among those asked their opinion of the provision itself, 71 percent were in favor and 25 percent were opposed. Among the second group, those who were told that Trump supported this program, 76 percent said they were in favor of Trump’s position and 23 percent were opposed.
But, among members of the Trump “base” – those who said they voted for Trump in 2016, identified as “very conservative” or identified as “strong Tea Party supporters” – views of the issue were markedly different when Trump was brought into the conversation.
When asked whether they personally supported continuing the provision that protects minors who were brought to the country illegally from being deported, just 49 percent of Trump voters, 47 percent of very conservative voters, and 36 percent of strong Tea Party supporters said they did.
But, when asked if they favored Trump’s position to continue the program, 78 percent of Trump voters, 74 percent of very conservative voters, and 58 percent of strong Tea Party supporters favored Trump’s position.
In other words, if it’s ok with Trump, it’s ok with me.
Of course, this poll was taken in May, which feels like a lifetime ago. It didn’t test how voters would feel if Trump made a deal with Democrats to continue the program. Nor did it mention the potential that this deal wouldn’t include money for the physical “wall.”
Yet, there’s non-empirical evidence that these findings are still relevant today. Last week, Los Angeles Times’ Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan interviewed more than a dozen Trump supporters in suburban Phoenix, and reported that “not one found fault with Trump’s abandonment of his vow to deport the young immigrants.” Even former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arapaio, not exactly a squish on the issue, “seemed willing to go along with the compromise reached this week, if Trump thinks it best.” He told Barabak and Finnegan: “He’s trying to make deals and get stuff done.”
This “getting stuff done” sentiment is one that you hear among GOP voters all across the country. One GOP strategist told me that one of his biggest take-aways from focus group work he did this summer was the degree to which GOP voters blame everyone but Trump for the lack of progress in Washington. GOP leaders, the lobbyists, and the "swamp dwellers" are keeping Trump from being successful. If he needs to work with Democrats to get stuff done, say GOP voters, so be it. Moreover, his support for DACA gives cover to Republicans who are supportive of the program, but have been terrified about crossing the anti-immigration hardliners, especially in a primary. Many of those supportive GOPers sit in swing districts that are being targeted by national Democrats. A vote to protect DREAMers would be very helpful to them politically.
To be sure, we’ve got a looooong way to go before we can start talking about real votes on a real DACA bill. There’s every reason in the world to be skeptical that a deal can actually be cut. But, it’s clear that Trump can make a deal without losing the support of his base.
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