Donald Trump used his presidential announcement yesterday to stake out the most extreme immigration position of any candidate, claiming that immigration has made America a “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” Maybe the billionaire casino mogul thinks this line is the path to victory, but he’s wrong.
Today’s America is simply not the America Trump grew up in. For most of his lifetime, a plurality, if not a majority, of Americans favored restricting immigration. But since 1995, support for restriction has dropped 30 percent, according to Gallup polls. Those who want to increase or maintain the current level of immigration are now nearly 60 percent of the public.
Despite the headlines, the GOP is not the anti-immigrant party Trump would like it to be. The Niskanen Center recently conducted a comprehensive analysis of all national polls from 2001 to 2014 that asked respondents if they support or oppose increasing work visas. Americans on average supported foreign workers, 56 percent to 34 percent.
In the polls that asked the respondents’ party affiliation, partisans of all varieties favored allowing more workers to enter the United States legally—64 percent of Democrats and independents along with 60 percent of Republicans. Perhaps Trump is still stuck in the ’80s when a majority of Americans opposed admitting new immigrant workers.
Today’s polls show that few Republicans support Trump’s view, but will his position give him a boost among those who do? Katie Packer Gage, the former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney, doesn’t think so. Packer Gage saw first-hand how a hard-line immigration position hurt her candidate in the general election while doing little to help in the primaries.
“Harsh rhetoric,” she wrote in Politico yesterday, “doesn’t win the hearts of the majority of primary voters and it alienates critical general election constituencies.” She reports polling data from her firm, Burning Glass Consulting, which found that anti-immigration Republicans stand to lose 24 percent more votes in a general election than they attract in primaries.
Furthermore, their research finds that only 20 percent or less of Republicans in early primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—would refuse to vote for a candidate who favors a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants. At the same time, 60 percent of Republicans in those states favor allowing unauthorized immigrants to stay.
This research aligns with recent polling from Pew which found that 53 percent of Republicans support allowing unauthorized immigrants to stay. These findings bolster the argument that many immigration proponents have been making: anti-immigration rhetoric appeals to a small and shrinking part of the U.S. electorate.
Republican candidates should, as most have already done, ignore the anti-immigrant extreme. Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio propose to expand legal immigration. They follow the nearly unanimous view of economists that immigration boosts wages, productivity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The Trump sideshow is a reflection of the fading anti-immigration movement in both America and in the party. Instead of a path to victory, Trump’s views will thankfully keep him from the nomination and the presidency. If Republicans are serious about winning in 2016, they will follow the public in supporting immigration reform and leave Trump to denounce immigrants alone.