President Trump in the Oval Office on July 2. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

One of the worst mental habits we see among pundits these days is to overexaggerate the role that Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigration agenda played in his 2016 victory. This isn’t just about the past; it also confuses analysis of the present, leading pundits to baselessly presume in advance that President Trump’s immigration attacks will prove fearsomely potent in November’s midterms.

A new analysis by two political scientists offers important new data that sheds light on this debate. It suggests Trump’s immigration agenda might have been of negligible importance in his 2016 win, and that Hillary Clinton may have benefited more from the immigration debate than Trump did (that is, despite her electoral-college loss, it actually expanded her popular-vote total).

With Trump tweeting another round of attacks on Democrats over immigration this morning, this new data suggests — as the two political scientists conclude — that the Trumpified immigration debate might actually hurt the president and Republicans more than it does Democrats right now.

The new analysis by Howard Lavine and Wendy Rahn of the University of Minnesota looked at 2016 national polling data from the American National Election Studies. They broke down white Americans into three groups: 44 percent of whites are “anti-immigration” and want lower immigration levels; 40 percent of whites are immigration moderates who want to keep levels the same; and 16 percent of whites are “pro-immigration” and want immigration increased.

That means a minority of whites want reduced immigration (as Trump does), while a 56 percent majority of whites are not anti-immigration, with most wanting to keep current levels. The key finding here is that Trump only marginally improved over previous Republican presidential candidates among anti-immigration whites, gaining eight percentage points among them over Mitt Romney. By contrast, Clinton improved over Barack Obama’s performance by seven points among moderates but also by a huge margin among pro-immigration whites. Together, those last two blocks of whites are larger than the anti-immigration block.

Trump, of course, routed Clinton among white voters. But Lavine and Rahn conclude that his anti-immigration agenda in particular might not have played a big role in making that happen, because the backlash among moderate and pro-immigration whites more than canceled out any gain Trump made among anti-immigration whites. And turnout was not higher among anti-immigration whites.

One can surmise that maybe Trump’s small gain among anti-immigration whites helped produce tiny Trump margins in a few states while Clinton’s gain among other whites mostly piled up in liberal strongholds. But that gets bound up in a debate over the many other causes that might have shifted those tiny margins, which will probably forever remain inconclusive.

The backlash to Trumpism is large

That aside, what’s really important about this analysis is what it says about the current debate. Lavine and Rahn conclude that, because “xenophobic whites” are already reliably Republican and that “less intolerant whites” waver (and shifted to Clinton in response to Trump), this may mean “politicizing xenophobia and racism in American elections” is “instigating a liberal counterreaction” that may be giving Democrats “more to gain than Republicans” from “political conflict over immigration.”

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we’ve already seen this in other elections this cycle, especially the Virginia gubernatorial race and the Alabama Senate race. In those elections, Republicans ran on Trumpist race-baiting immigration appeals (as they also did in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District) and lost, in part due to what appeared to be a large backlash to Trump among nonwhite voters, yes, but also among younger white voters and college-educated whites — especially suburbanites and women.

Trump’s immigration agenda and attacks on Democrats on the issue, of course, are heavily bound up with his racism, as three years of his public and private statements have confirmed. And Trump wants to make the midterms about his immigration agenda, in the belief that it will juice turnout among the Trump base (i.e., rural, exurban, blue collar, evangelical, and aging whites). The question is whether the backlash that that is fueling on the other side of the cultural divide will remain large enough to help Dems make big gains in the House. If that happens, it would suggest this study was on to something — Trump’s racism and xenophobia hurt more than they help.

One last point: This study found that only a minority of whites favor reduced immigration levels. More broadly, a recent Quinnipiac survey found the same, but also that only small minorities of whites favor Trump’s wall and oppose citizenship for the “dreamers” and for the broader category of undocumented immigrants. And so, if Trump’s agenda is inspiring a backlash, it is worth noting that the reason for this is that not only are trans-racial majorities rejecting Trumpism — majorities of whites are broadly rejecting Trumpism as well.

* TRUMP IS CUTTING LEGAL IMMIGRATION: The Post reports that Trump is making inroads towards one of his key goals:

The number of people receiving visas to move permanently to the United States is on pace to drop 12 percent in President Trump’s first two years in office, according to a Washington Post analysis of State Department data.

Among the most affected are the Muslim-majority countries on the president’s travel ban list — Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya and Somalia — where the number of new arrivals to the United States is heading toward an 81 percent drop by Sept. 30, the end of the second fiscal year under Trump. . . .

Legal immigration from all Muslim-majority countries is on track to fall by nearly a third.

Remember how we were supposed to actually believe that Trump banned travel from those particular countries for national-security reasons?

* TRUMP MELTDOWN AT NATO COULD HELP PUTIN: The New York Times reports that Trump wrote “sharply worded letters” blasting NATO leaders for spending too little on their own defense in advance of his upcoming meeting with them:

Mr. Trump’s criticism raised the prospect of another confrontation [with] American allies after a blowup by Mr. Trump at the Group of 7 . . . and increased concerns that far from projecting solidarity in the face of threats from Russia, the meeting will highlight divisions within the alliance. Such a result could play into the hands of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia . . . whose primary goal is sowing divisions within the alliance.

Feature, not bug.

* TRUMP KEEPS LYING ABOUT HIS WALL: Trump has been telling his gullible rally crowds that construction of the wall is underway. NBC News sets the record straight, noting that only a bit of fencing has been built:

While some new fencing has been built along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year, it’s not the concrete barrier Trump vowed because of the strings Congress put on the cash. . . . A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection (said that more than seven miles of border fencing had been replaced in the past year. (The president has said the U.S. needs 700 miles of new barrier on the border, and has sought $25 billion for his wall.)

As NBC points out, Trump had repeatedly and emphatically said that a “fence” will not count as a “wall.” Apparently that’s no longer operative, since losing on this is unthinkable.

* JUDGE BLOCKS TRUMP AGAIN: A federal judge in Washington has ordered the Trump administration to release or grant individual hearings to more than 1,000 asylum seekers it had detained, in response to an ACLU lawsuit:

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued in March after finding detention rates at the offices surged to 96 percent in the first eight months after President Trump took office in 2017, up from less than 10 percent in 2013. . . . The ACLU says the mass imprisonment of people seeking refuge while awaiting immigration court hearings stems from policies . . . that amount to a deterrent to using the asylum provision.

As always, the Trump administration will do whatever it takes to dissuade people from seeking asylum here, desperate refugees included.

* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT TRUMP’S TRADE WAR: Politico reports that Republicans have had enough, dammit:

The mounting frustration with the Republican president is a warning sign for the party amid what’s been a surprisingly favorable stretch. . . . But Republican senators say they can’t get the president to comprehend that his tariffs offensive could upend all of that progress in short order. Commodity prices in the heartland are sagging, U.S. allies are retaliating with tariffs of their own — and GOP leaders are fretting that the booming economy is about to go into a pre-midterms nosedive.

But it’s all good, because . . .

* TRUMP THINKS HIS BASE LOVES TRADE WAR: Politico also reports that Trump is now at war with business leaders over his trade war, but he thinks he’s got enough support where it counts:

[Trump is] betting that his populist approach to trade will thrill his working-class base and blow away any short-term economic fallout . . . His message to corporate America so far: I don’t care what you say, my base is with me. On the other side, corporate titans and market analysts fear Trump is on the cusp of damaging the American economy — and that he will not recognize the failure of his approach until it’s too late.

It will certainly be interesting to see how much of his base stays with him if we do start seeing serious economic damage, because it will likely bite hard in Trump country.

* AND TRUMP MAKES ‘POLICY BY TEMPER TANTRUM’: Paul Krugman takes stock of all the rising opposition in many quarters to Trump’s tariffs, and concludes:

Another administration might look at foreign retaliation, industry protests and stories about jobs lost due to its tariffs and consider the possibility that it’s on the wrong path. This administration? Never. I don’t think most businesses, or most investors in financial markets, are taking the threat of trade war seriously enough. They’re acting . . . as if the grown-ups will step in . . . But there are no grown-ups in this administration, which basically makes policy by temper tantrum. A full-blown trade war looks all too possible; in fact, it may already have begun.

As Krugman notes, a full-blown trade war “would cause huge worker displacement.” But we’re told Trump’s base thrills to this type of “temper tantrum,” seeing it as sticking it to the “elites.”