On immigration, this month’s Republican and Democratic conventions were as different as pit bulls and collies.
In Cleveland, the GOP lined up behind presidential candidate Donald Trump’s nativist crusade to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the Mexican border. The Democrats, in Philadelphia, gave their podium to undocumented families and pledged again to revive immigration reform. The Pakistan-born father of a fallen Muslim-American soldier told Trump to read the U.S. Constitution.
Most pundits are scoring this one for the Dems, if only because the party has woken up and smelled the demographic café.
After all, in this century the white conservative vote – most of which considers immigrants a drag on America, according to surveys – has shrunk while the immigrant-heavy Latino vote has ballooned in key swing states. In fact, it played a big role in President Obama’s 2012 re-election.
So if the 2016 race between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton boils down to the immigration issue – and experts say it could – Clinton’s got it sewed up, right?
Hardly. And that’s because Trump and the Republicans have reached back to the 1980s – when, you know, America was last great – and a page from the politically incorrect, but politically effective, campaign playbook of that era.
They’ve turned immigrants into this election’s Willie Horton.
Horton, you’ll recall, was the black convict whom the GOP made a symbol of white fears – the bogeyman that helped Republican candidate George H.W. Bush win the 1988 presidential election.
Little if any credible research suggests immigrants commit more violent crime than U.S.-born Americans do. In fact, most studies suggest the opposite. But from the moment he announced his candidacy last year, Trump has convinced an astonishing chunk of voters that undocumented migrants from countries like Mexico are “rapists and murderers.”
And last week’s GOP convention distilled that xenophobic lie into a cunning, Willie Horton maneuver by focusing not on immigrants but on the victims of immigrant-related violent crime.
In his speech, Trump spoke about an undocumented Honduran who while driving drunk this year killed a 21-year-old Nebraska woman. No one denies her death was tragic. But when Trump declared her “one more child sacrificed at the altar of open borders,” he climbed over his own border wall between lamentation and exploitation.
And it may help explain why Trump left Cleveland – a dysfunctional convention that by all accounts shouldn’t have given him a bounce – with a five-point lead over Clinton in this week’s CNN poll. What’s most significant about that poll is the bloc that’s suddenly pumping him up: independent voters.
My own journalist’s sense had assumed that independents, like Latinos, would be a more moderate, anti-Trump firewall in the general election. But the CNN survey indicates that while just 31 percent of them backed Trump before the convention, 46 percent do now.
The poll doesn’t specify why. But given how hard the convention hammered on the immigrant menace, not just in criminal but economic terms, it’s hard not to think this divisive debate is attracting more angry whites into the Trump tent.
Something else to keep in mind: While this may be the first time immigrants have been Willie Hortonized in a federal election, the tactic has worked before on the state level. In 1994, Republicans used it to push a draconian anti-immigration ballot initiative in California known as Prop 187 to a landslide victory. Ditto similar Arizona legislation just six years ago.
The courts have since kiboshed both measures. But the example is there, and the Trumpites are more aware of it than the Clintonites are. The Dems are still counting on demographic logic and voter reason to prevail – even during an election cycle that has made logic and reason seem as unnatural as Trump’s comb-over.
Tuesday evening, local immigrant advocates protested outside the Trump National Miami Doral golf resort, where Trump was holding a fundraiser.
“I feel insulted by Trump,” one Argentine immigrant, Mauro Kennedy, told me. “I can’t believe someone can speak like that about me and my family.”
But speaking like that got Trump the GOP nomination. It may lead him to the White House – unless Clinton brings more counter-anger to the immigration issue.