It’s not quite Nixon to China, but Donald Trump’s new moves on immigration, including a hastily arranged visit to Mexico, is designed to help reboot his campaign.
Trump walks a tightrope as he seeks to mollify his base of support that strongly opposes immigrant legalization, while at the same time making symbolic overtures to Republican moderates and Latino voters. The politics of messaging, and framing the issues around immigration, has been the focus of research.
Trump’s moves on immigration are reminiscent of another presidential candidate’s moves to shore up support among white moderates. In the heat of the 1992 primary campaign, then-candidate Bill Clinton repudiated the statements and lyrics of African American rap artist Sista Soulja in what was later termed his “Sista Soulja Moment.” This action was later credited with improving his standing with independent whites and the key to his 1992 victory.
We can also point to examples occurring outside the campaign context. For example, contrary to the stance of the Republican Party and his own statements, President Richard Nixon (R) famously visited China in 1972, effectively thawing relations with the communist adversary. His reputation at the time and since benefitted tremendously from this unexpected political play.
Donald Trump is a unique candidate whose political fate may bear little resemblance to any of the aforementioned presidents. Trump is by far the most unpopular and judged to be the least temperamentally fit to be president. The latest Aug. 25, Quinnipiac poll finds that more than 60 percent of likely voters disapprove of Trump, 75 percent do not think he is level headed, and 70 percent think he is not qualified to be president. No other president on this list ever approached numbers this bad.
He is also the only one who does not have the full weight of his party’s establishment behind him. It is well known how few elected Republicans fully support Trump. Just recently, a chorus of negative comments about Trump’s immigration softening came from former GOP competitors Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.
And most importantly, Trump is the only candidate to go back on THE core issue that fueled his rise. While Bill Clinton’s stance against Sista Soulja’s controversial rhetoric was clear, it was not his core campaign issue. And while Nixon’s trip to communist China was surprising, he had already announced that he would visit China in July of 1971.
So what should we make of all of this? While predicting the political fate of Donald Trump may be difficult given the uniqueness of this candidacy, his Nixonian jaunt to Mexico combined with his rhetorical “softening” may give Trump a much needed counterpoint to the dominant narrative of Trump as both entrenched on the hard right of immigration and dangerous on the international relations front.
That said, our research demonstrates that Republican source cues do matter. For instance, when a Republican advocating a pro-legalization message boosts support for a path to citizenship.
Thus, while Trump’s moves probably won’t win him the presidency, they could alter the politics of immigration reform in the coming years. As conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said following Trump’s immigration pivot, “who knew that it would be Donald Trump to come on and convert the GOP base to supporting amnesty.”
Chris Haynes is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Haven. This op-ed is based on research conducted with Jennifer Merolla and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, of the School of Public Policy at the University of California at Riverside, where Haynes earned his Ph.D. in political science. Their research is being released as a book, “Framing Immigrants: News Coverage, Public Opinion and Policy,” from the Russell Sage Foundation.
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