Tuesday’s exit polls suggest President Trump overestimated voters’ concerns about illegal immigration ahead of the midterms.
Despite Trump’s heavy focus on immigration — specifically on caravans of migrants from Central America — in recent weeks, health care proved to be the leading issue for voters in this election, with immigration coming in a distant second. Exit polling conducted by CNN , CBS News and ABC News all found that about 40 percent of voters surveyed ranked health care as their top issue, nearly double the percentage who said immigration was their primary concern.
The exit polls showed that nearly half of voters believe Trump’s immigration policies are too tough, while between 15 and 17 percent feel they’re not tough enough.
Early exit polling backed up research released Tuesday by Democratic polling firm ALG. Among the myths ALG claimed to debunk was the notion that Trump’s immigration policies are popular. The research found that only 26 percent of likely voters said they believe immigrants commit more crimes than other groups, and 36 percent support decreasing overall immigration levels, while 66 percent of likely voters said they oppose the Trump administration’s family separation policy and 54 percent are in favor of ending its policy of indefinite detention for asylum seekers.
“There are clear preferences for Democratic responses to Trump’s divisive language around immigration, as well as a revulsion at much of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric,” the ALG researchers concluded. “Ultimately, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment is unlikely to be the political panacea for which Trump and the Republicans are hoping.”
While the data appear to show that Trump overshot the mark with his anti-immigrant campaign strategy, the results of several state and local races suggest that its impact was mixed.
For example, civil rights and immigrant rights groups praised the election of Democrat Laura Kelly for Kansas governor over Kris Kobach, a Trump ally with a long record of promoting anti-immigrant and minority voter-suppression policies in Kansas and across the country. Before becoming vice chairman of the Trump administration’s highly criticized panel to investigate voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election, Kobach was the chief architect of Arizona’s strict immigration law, SB 1070, most of which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. Echoing Trump, Kobach had tried to stoke fears about caravans of Central American migrants in an effort to make illegal immigration a key issue in the Kansas gubernatorial race.
In a statement following Kobach’s defeat Tuesday night, Frank Sharry, executive director of the progressive immigration reform group America’s Voice, said Kobach “has a long history of vilifying immigrants and pushing repressive policies. He has inflicted pain on millions. It finally caught up with him.
“Thank you, Kansas, for standing up to hate and division and standing up for decency and fairness,” Sharry said.
The ACLU’s deputy political director, Lorella Praeli, echoed Sharry’s comments about Kobach while celebrating the defeat of a ballot measure to revoke Oregon’s 31-year-old sanctuary law and as well as the election of Democrat Gerald Baker as sheriff of Wake County, North Carolina. In his campaign to unseat longtime Republican incumbent Donnie Harrison, Baker had opposed the office’s partnership with federal immigration officials to detain suspected undocumented immigrants as part of the controversial 287(g) program.
“Last night was proof that when voters are asked directly to vote on racial and discriminatory policies, they uphold the American values of liberty and justice for all,” Praeli said in a statement. “Across the political spectrum, Americans support Dreamers and asylum seekers, but President Trump and his supporters have rejected common sense solutions in favor of playing politics and stoking fear,” she declared.
But not all proponents of Trump’s hardline approach to immigration were defeated Tuesday. Voters in Maryland’s Frederick and Harford counties, for example, re-elected Republican sheriffs who have engaged their offices in 287(g) partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In Florida’s Hillsborough county, Chad Chronister, one of 17 sheriffs in the state to join a disputed agreement to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally for an extra 48 hours on ICE’s behalf, defeated his Democratic challenger, who had pledged to withdraw from the partnership.
Perhaps the most significant victory for the immigration hardliners was the re-election of notoriously anti-immigrant Iowa Rep. Steve King. Despite alienating donors, the Republican Congressional Campaign Commission and apparently even Trump with his increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and associations with known white supremacists, King narrowly secured a ninth term in Congress.
On Wednesday, Trump defended his stance on the Central American migrant caravan and dismissed the notion that his rhetoric “demonized immigrants.” Trump’s final midterms campaign ad, which apparently sought to portray members of the caravan as violent criminals, was deemed racist and ultimately pulled from several networks, including Fox News.
But asked Wednesday whether he regretted the ad, Trump replied definitively: “No, I’m surprised you would ask me that question. I do not.”