Donald Trump managed to encapsulate his entire general election campaign with just one immigration speech this week: He over- promised, failed to pivot, and, above all else, entertained.
Every day, the stakes get higher for Trump. While polls suggest the race has tightened in the last few weeks, Hillary Clinton is still well on her way to getting the necessary Electoral College votes to become the next president. Trump’s trip to Mexico City and subsequent immigration speech offered a chance to dominate the news cycle, an opportunity to appeal to the many Republicans who aren’t with him — and maybe even some independent voters.
But there wasn’t much new in the Wednesday evening speech that Trump’s campaign staff had billed as his major immigration moment.
Trump repeated that he wants Mexico to pay for a wall along southern border (despite saying earlier that day he did not discuss this during his meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico). When Trump released a skeletal immigration plan in August 2015, he called for tripling the number of Immigrant Customs Enforcement officers. In July, he told “60 Minutes” he wanted “extreme vetting” and an ideological test for those coming to the United States from the Middle East.
He has already said he wants to scrap a pair of immigration-related executive orders signed by President Obama. From the first moments of his campaign, he has said he wants to cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities.
Some Republicans desperately wanted to see Trump emerge from his highly public, 10-day vacillation having softened his stance on immigration. Well, he made a subtle shift: Instead of stating flatly that all of the 11 million people who are this country illegally would be rounded up by government agents and immediately removed from the country, Trump announced a priority system for removing the “bad guys” first and basically punting on everyone else.
Only after all the “bad guys” are gone, a border wall is built, and new policies are installed for those seeking to enter the country, Trump said he would consider what to do with what he estimated are 9 million people living in the United States illegally and not breaking any additional laws.
It was like Trump considered being a politician and making a pivot to appeal to general election voters, but he decided to deport that idea instead.
This is not the first time that Trump has subtly backtracked during the campaign. For example, Trump does not talk much about his temporary Muslim ban anymore. In a debate last November, Trump was against raising the minimum wage. But when was asked about it again in May, he said, “I think people have to get more.”
“Sure, it’s a change. I’m allowed to change,” Trump said.
And while one of his immigration policies may have ever-so-slightly softened, Trump’s tone did not. He doubled down on his nationalist zeal, appealing to the white, working-class fears about the country’s fast-changing demographics. Trump even promised the crowd that he would curb legal immigration by vowing to “keep immigration levels, measured by population share, within historical norms.”
In this way, Trump failed to pivot once more. In a new Fox News poll released Wednesday, 48 percent of Trump supporters said they would be more likely to vote for Trump if he softened his stance on immigration. Among all voters in the survey, 77 percent said they favored finding a way to grant legal status to those already in the country illegally.
If Trump thought he was walking a tightrope with his supporters who wanted a hard line, he was mistaken. Only 15 percent of his supporters said they were less likely to vote for him if he softened his stance. (Although this doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t vote for him, because who else would they support?) Trump didn’t upset his base, and with this rhetoric, he didn’t obviously try to play to the white suburban female swing voter in Ohio or Pennsylvania either.
While his immigration speech didn’t live up to the hype of being a monumental day in his campaign, nor did Trump pivot in a substantial way as many politicians would, he did entertain.
While Clinton was in Ohio delivering a scripted speech to the American Legion, Trump was dominating the news. There was wall-to-wall coverage of his dual press conference in Mexico City. There was intrigue about what exactly was said in his closed-door meeting with the Mexican president. His speech was covered without commercial breaks for the full hour on the cable news networks.
This type of coverage hasn’t happened for Trump since he accepted the Republican nomination over a month ago. And given that Clinton has led in all by two national polls since July, Trump needs all the attention he can get to turn things around.