The Corner

Immigration in the Primaries, in Retrospect

On immigration, the exit polls from the Republican primaries were pretty consistent across the country. Most Republicans nearly everywhere believed that many illegal immigrants should be offered legal status rather than being deported. Very few Republicans listed immigration as their top concern in voting. But those few Republicans broke heavily for Trump. And most Republicans backed the temporary ban on Muslims’ entering our country.

It’s a mixed picture. But the exit polls may understate Republican voters’ skepticism about immigration and opposition to illegal immigration, and understate the role of these attitudes in Trump’s ascent. First: Even some voters who believe that illegal immigrants should be offered legal status may wish that to happen only after illegal immigration was first stopped, and may not trust politicians to carry through on that bargain. Second: The exit polls did not ask voters about whether legal immigration levels should be raised; other polls have found a distinct lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for that idea. Third: Even though the vast majority of voters did not list immigration as their top issue, it may have benefited Trump by helping to establish him in their minds as a foe of political correctness and someone who would speak uncomfortable truths the other candidates wouldn’t. (Trump usually cleaned up among voters who prized candidates who “tell it like it is.”)

We are therefore justified in concluding that Trump would have had a smaller base of support if he had not portrayed himself as a tougher opponent of illegal immigration than the rest of the field: perhaps even so much smaller that he would not have prevailed.

Some conservative and libertarian supporters of open immigration have drawn the further conclusion that critics of immigration paved the way for Trump, even if they opposed him in the end, by inflaming Republican opinion on the issue. These fingers are often pointed in the general direction of this magazine.

I think this is close to the reverse of the truth. People who wanted increased legal immigration and a quick grant of legal status for illegal immigrants tried to foist a consensus on the Republican party that was a poor fit for its voters. This effort succeeded for a while: The Republican “autopsy” after the 2012 election recommended this approach, and before Trump it appeared that nearly everyone in the Republican presidential field would support it. (Rick Santorum was the main exception.) Trump catered to a previously-unmet market demand for immigration restrictionism.

Perhaps if prior to mid-2015 politicians with strong conservative records, sterling characters, and well-considered policy agendas had tried to meet this demand in intelligent ways themselves, the primaries would have gone a bit differently.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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