Trump's immigration moves may overshadow economy for midterm voters

    Migrants hitch rides in the back of trucks as the thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans hoping to reach the U.S. border moves onward from Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    President Donald Trump said Thursday his administration is finalizing plans to deny asylum to migrants caught crossing the border outside of official ports of entry, escalating his effort to make the midterm elections more about immigration and caravans of Honduran migrants than traditional economic issues other Republicans may want to highlight.

    “These illegal caravans will not be allowed into the United States and they should turn back now,” Trump said.

    In remarks at the White House, Trump announced no official policy change, but he indicated an executive order on asylum-seekers could be coming as early as next week. The new approach may run afoul of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows anyone who arrives in the U.S. to apply for asylum.

    “This is totally legal,” he insisted.

    It was the third dramatic announcement the president has made this week surrounding immigration, mostly in response to the caravans, the largest and closest of which is still weeks from the border in southern Mexico. Trump has claimed the asylum-seekers amount to an “invasion” that threatens the sovereignty of the United States.

    Trump has directed more than 5,000 active-duty troops to the border to provide logistical support, and he suggested Wednesday he could ultimately send triple that number. He has also floated eliminating birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants, which many legal experts say is enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The president has stepped up his campaign rhetoric against Democrats on the issue as well, blaming them for the danger that he alleges the caravan poses. On Wednesday, he tweeted a campaign video dubiously tying Democrats to an undocumented immigrant who killed police officers and baselessly implying there are more killers in the caravan.

    “This is a sickening ad. Republicans everywhere should denounce it,” replied Sen. Jeff Flake, one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics.

    Critics accuse Trump of fabricating an immigration crisis to justify pre-election stunts that excite his nationalist base. Illegal border crossings have risen sharply in recent months, but they remain at relatively low levels historically.

    “1. There is no ‘illegal immigration crisis,’” said conservative Bill Kristol on Twitter. “2. If there were one, it would have been dealt with if only the president’s party controlled Congress.”

    The White House insists these are not stunts but necessary responses to a growing threat left unchecked by previous administrations that the president has been confronting since he took office.

    “I’m not fearmongering at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “Immigration is a very important subject. The Democrats have let immigration in our country get out of control with their horrible, not allowing us to have any votes to get passage. We need Democrat votes to change the immigration laws.”

    While the timing is conspicuous, Gary Nordlinger, a political media consultant and professional in residence at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University said these moves are entirely consistent with positions Trump has taken since demanding a wall and demonizing some Mexican immigrants in his 2015 campaign announcement speech.

    “These are not pre-election stunts at all,” he said. “This is Donald Trump running as Donald Trump. Going back to his announcement of his candidacy, Donald Trump has made immigration a signature issue.”

    Republican strategist David Payne recalled Trump has raised eliminating birthright citizenship before, including during the 2016 campaign.

    “I think this is hardcore campaigning by Donald Trump as he knows it best, and it is an issue that turned voters out for him two years ago,” he said.

    Accentuating the issue so aggressively at this moment, in the final week before the midterm elections, appears to be a deliberate strategic choice, albeit one with narrow appeal.

    “President Trump really has demonstrated that he is interested only in ginning up the Republican base,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University. “That was what elected him, and he believes that it is either a winning strategy or the only strategy for him to pursue in the midterms, even though he’s not on the ballot.”

    Trump’s immigration speech came the day after the Bureau of Labor Statistics touted a 3.1 percent increase in wages in the third quarter of 2018—the largest wage bump in a decade—and the day before strong data on job growth in October is expected. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal predict the unemployment rate will hold steady around 3.7 percent as the economy adds 188,000 new jobs.

    With unemployment already at a 49-year low, these numbers are just the latest in a string of positive economic indicators that could tee up a powerful midterm message. Earlier this month, initial claims for unemployment benefits hit the lowest level since 1973, and there have been more jobs available than people looking for jobs for several consecutive months now.

    Initial data on the third quarter estimated the economy grew at 3.5 percent, down from 4.2 percent in the second quarter but still on track to clear 3 percent for the year for the first time since 2005. Consumer confidence has risen to the highest levels in 18 years.

    Whether these trends are sustainable is an open question—and economists have doubts—but for the moment, the economy is humming along, buoyed by tax cuts and deregulation championed by Trump and the Republican congressional majority.

    “One would think that with an economy this robust, the prospects of the party in power would be a lot better than they are,” Altschuler said. “That said, I think Republicans don’t need to make too many references to the robust economy because voters are very much aware of it.”

    Nordlinger agreed many of the benefits are self-evident, and he noted a strong economy did little to help President Bill Clinton when Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate in 1994.

    “The Republican establishment has been urging Trump to run on the economy all year, but as usual when it comes to Donald Trump, the establishment thinking is inevitably wrong,” he said.

    Although Trump keeps hammering immigration issues in his tweets and rallies, his administration and his campaign seem to recognize the persuasive power of a surging economy. The White House held a workforce development event Wednesday and trumpeted the wage growth data in an email to the press pool.

    "The reality is that we have an incredible economy, a robust economy and that's because of deregulation, because of tax reform,” Ivanka Trump claimed at the event.

    The Trump campaign’s closing argument ad rolled out recently with a $6 million buy in key states drew upon concerns that handing Democrats control of Congress will roll back economic progress.

    “This could all go away if we don’t remember what we came from,” a voice says as a woman casts a vote for a Republican candidate. Trump himself is not seen or heard in the 60-second ad.

    In the course of his often hourlong unscripted rally speeches, Trump does echo this argument at times. However, his personal attacks on Democrats, the media, and impoverished Hondurans tend to crowd his economic boasts out of the headlines, especially in the wake of attempted bombings last week allegedly perpetrated by one of his supporters against his political enemies.

    “What you’re seeing is a frantic attempt by President Trump, who knows that he’s essentially a minority president, to really turn out the base, and this is certainly a rallying cry for his most fervent supporters,” Altschuler said. “The danger of the strategy is that the people who will respond most favorably to these recent statements have, in all likelihood, already made a firm decision to vote for the Republicans anyway.”

    Trump continuing to spit venom at Democrats targeted by a domestic terrorist and his apparent openness to the notion of Jewish billionaire George Soros funding the migrant caravan—a conspiracy theory reportedly embraced by the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday—have generated fresh outrage, as has the anti-Democrat video he tweeted Wednesday that Altschuler described as a “racist dog whistle.”

    Those acts have already generated hours of cable news coverage, but it is not clear they will change anyone’s votes next Tuesday. Those who like Trump are cheering him on, those who do not have already made up their minds, and nothing about his behavior in the last week has been especially surprising to either side.

    “If you’re a conventional Republican conservative, you’ve already decided you don’t have to like Donald Trump as a person to like what they’re doing in terms of policy,” Nordlinger said.

    Whether a final message driven by race and fear resonates or not will depend on a lot of factors, including demographics, geography, and voters’ opinions of Trump. The president’s final eight-state election week tour is carefully calibrated to maximize his impact on Republicans in tight Senate races, sometimes to the detriment of GOP House candidates struggling for survival elsewhere.

    “If you’re in these suburban toss-up Republican districts, it’s not helping them a bit,” Nordlinger said. “The Republicans trying to get re-elected in the suburban highly-educated districts need to be stressing the economy, they need to be stressing some sort of outreach on health care.”

    For GOP candidates who are trying to stay on-message and promote the policies fueling the economy, Trump’s behavior does pose risks.

    “When you have a great economy, how do you benefit the most from that politically?” Payne said. “By being likable, by being uncontroversial.”

    Even if Trump stays out of their districts physically, candidates will face questions about his spotlight-grabbing immigration initiatives.

    “If you’re Leonard Lance in New Jersey, Barbara Comstock in Virginia, or Carlos Curbelo in Florida, you’ve now got to spend some of the waning days of this election addressing issues that may not be the ones you want to stress given the constituencies in your district,” Altschuler said.

    To an extent, though, Republicans get the benefits of Trump ginning up outrage and terror in his base for free, allowing them to spend their campaign cash on a more localized, less controversial message.

    “Donald Trump is dominating the earned media, but in terms of the paid campaign messaging, the candidates have virtually unlimited money to be getting their messages out,” Nordlinger said.

    An analysis of recent House and Senate campaign ads by the Wesleyan Media Project shows a quarter of Republican Senate ads and 41 percent of GOP House ads have been focused on taxes. Less than 20 percent have been about immigration, and explicitly pro-Trump messages have been relatively rare.

    Despite the president’s provocations, Democrats across the country remain squarely focused on making their own closing arguments. In many cases, that involves highlighting Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the implication that their goal of repealing the bill would also threaten protections of insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

    According to the Wesleyan Media Project, nearly half of all Democratic Senate ads and 59 percent of the party’s House ads have been about health care. Regardless of what Democrats’ ads say, though, Trump’s constant campaigning and his agitation of the country’s racial and political divisions have made many races referendums on his leadership.

    “If Donald Trump embodies one political philosophy, it’s that the best defense is a good offense,” Altschuler said. “He is not going to sit and wait for Democrats to talk about separating families at the border. He is going to double down on the dangers of immigration.”

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    Much like suburban Republican candidates, vulnerable Democrats will find themselves forced to navigate dicey immigration questions they have no politically palatable answers for if the president keeps raising them.

    “Democratic candidates don’t want to talk about the migrant caravan,” Payne said. “This is Trump’s way of forcing Democrats to talk about it. Democrats aren’t going to stay silent when he revisits the idea of ending birthright citizenship.”

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