Why has Donald Trump softened his rhetoric about immigration, and maybe his positions as well?
Well, nobody knows for sure except Mr. Trump himself and maybe new campaign chief Kellyanne Conway. But here are two words that might explain the surprising shift: “white voters.”
White voters? Shouldn’t Hispanics and other minorities groups be the target of any Trump immigration retreat? They’re the groups that Trump’s tough words and proposed policies (“Build the wall!”) have infuriated. They’re the ones whose support for the GOP nominee is scraping historically low levels.
That’s all true. But right now Trump’s most pressing electoral problem is with whites, not minorities. Currently he’s not running as well with white voters overall as Mitt Romney did in 2012. He’s substantially below the percentage of the white vote he probably would need to win.
Trump has long had an imbalance issue with whites. For all the working-class white males that thrill to what they see as Trump’s willingness to defy all political correctness, there are more-educated whites that recoil from what they define as irresponsible behavior. Add one in the first category, subtract one (or two) from the second.
Now Trump may be trying to produce a magic formula for reassuring the first group that he’s all he’s said he was, while indicating to the second that he’s also a normal Republican candidate so they can vote for him after all. That might explain his recent outreach speech to African-Americans, delivered to a mostly white audience; it could lie behind his waffling as to whether he’d organize a “deportation force” to go after undocumented immigrants from Day 1 of a Trump presidency.
“Trump’s biggest issue remains what it has been since the Republican National Convention: People who might otherwise be his supporters have trouble believing that he is a reasonable candidate,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History.
Where Trump stands on immigration policy, exactly, is perhaps a separate issue. Right now his position appears to be in flux.
On Thursday, Trump seemed to back away from his previous calls to establish a force to round up and deport the estimated 11 million immigrants in the nation illegally. He also hinted that he could “work with” those immigrants, perhaps on some sort of legalization process. But supporters, including big-name backers from author Ann Coulter to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, were aghast at the suggestions, and Trump subsequently appeared to at least partly roll back his words.
Campaign manager Conway has also publicly hinted at change in Trump’s immigration views. An expected major speech on the issue next week might provide more clarity on the issue.
But with Election Day less than three months away Trump clearly needs to do something to change the direction of the race. And white voters represent his biggest opportunity.
Given all the talk of Trump as the candidate of “alt-right” white nationalism, it might seem surprising that Trump has not yet rallied the white support won by Mr. Romney four years ago. But it’s true, and shows that focusing on the electorate along racial grounds sometimes glosses over important differences within a racial group.
Romney won about 59 percent of votes cast by whites in 2012. Breaking it down by educational levels, he won 61 percent of noncollege whites, and 56 percent of white college grads.
To win the White House Trump needs a big boost in that number. Romney lost, remember, and white voters will be a smaller percentage of the electorate this November, due to the growth of minorities. Romney would have won with about 63 percent of the white vote. Trump will need a bit more, perhaps 65 percent.
Not just black and white
That’s not impossible. Ronald Reagan won 66 percent of the white vote in 1984. Trump is already outperforming Romney among working-class whites, particularly men. He needs to do much better among educated whites. That’s particularly true for college-educated white women, a substantial majority of whom back Hillary Clinton, but it holds for college-educated white men as well.
Trump might be the first GOP candidate to lose the overall college educated white vote since 1952, according to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. This group is particularly worried about someone with Trump’s temperament and inexperience serving as commander-in-chief.
How can Trump better appeal to this demographic? Maybe he should just act less wild, says Professor Engel.
“Trump has to demonstrate that he is back within the grounds of normal discourse, to at least suggest that he has a basic level of understanding about issues and compassion, in order to alleviate the concerns of white voters who are questioning his basic competence and even sanity,” says Engel.
And maybe he should moderate his immigration views. According to Washington Post/ABC News data, fully half of whites without a college degree support Trump’s immigration policies. Among college-educated whites, that percentage falls to around 35 percent.