The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With DACA, Trump again prioritizes his base over what’s politically popular

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Sept. 5 that the Trump administration is rescinding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

This article has been updated.

If you were curious what role the Breitbart website would play in bolstering the presidency of Donald Trump, we saw what’s probably a representative example over the weekend.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration, in the person of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announced that it would rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA was enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012 to protect those who were brought to the country illegally as minors from deportation and to allow them to work legally in the United States. Trump is responding to a lawsuit threatened by Republican state attorneys general, who argue that Obama’s action was unconstitutional.

The DACA program is generally popular, as a number of polls have shown. At the end of last year, Pew Research asked Americans if those who immigrated illegally as children should be allowed to stay in the country. Nearly three-quarters said they should, with a third saying that such a policy was “very important.” The overall figure includes 82 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans. Of the policies Pew presented, no immigrant-friendly proposal earned more support from Republicans.

More to the point, the 2016 American National Election Studies survey conducted just before the election asked Americans about the specifics of the DACA policy. Even among Trump voters, more than two-thirds support the policy. Overall, the figure was over 75 percent.

Earlier this month, NBC News and its polling partner SurveyMonkey determined that 64 percent of Americans supported the principle behind DACA. In addition, 71 percent of respondents said that they thought all immigrants in the country illegally should be allowed the opportunity to achieve legal status.

Trump won his office, though, thanks in large part to anti-immigrant sentiment. A hard line on immigration was a critical motivator for the early kernel of support that powered him through the primaries and which has stood by him steadfastly since. (Those who supported Trump in the primaries are less supportive of DACA than voters overall, according to that National Election Studies poll.) It’s a minority of the country, but the group has loomed large in Trump’s political thinking from the get-go.

For the Republican Party, opposition to DACA is tricky. The party has been struggling to find a balance between two goals: Appealing to the country’s growing Hispanic population and respecting the fervent anti-immigrant views held by many Republican voters. Trump found political success in hammering on that latter point as a candidate; as president, he’s realizing that it’s not quite as simple. His apparent solution? Kick the decision to Congress, a move he telegraphed with a tweet on Tuesday morning.

Trump’s leaving it to Congress to negotiate between those two poles, instead of negotiating them himself. And that brings us back to Breitbart.

“Media pushes skewed DACA polls, hides public’s priorities,” a headline at the site declared over the weekend. The goal of the piece is obvious: Muddy the question of the popularity of DACA. If that is effective in persuading members of Congress to oppose anything DACA-like, all the better.

Assuming one accepts the rhetoric of the piece, which one should not. The author disparages polls like the one from NBC as “push polls” — that is, polls that push a respondent to a particular outcome — while embracing polling from the group Numbers USA, a group that favors limiting immigration. The founder of that group explains its polling philosophy, as follows:

“Our polls ask ‘Which is more important: Make sure that jobless Americans get the next jobs or continue to bring in high level of immigrants?’” That binary choice, of course, is the sort of thing you’d expect from … a push poll.

Those polls aren’t even about DACA, incidentally; the argument employed is basically that Americans want more hard-line policies on immigration policy generally and therefore probably really oppose DACA, if you think about it. It also suggests that people are guarded in offering their real opinions to pollsters because they “fear retaliation” — an argument that was deployed before the 2016 election in which national polls got the final vote margin correct.

The bigger question underlying the debate over DACA for Republicans is the extent to which there’s a political price to be paid in opposing the policy. Hispanic Americans born in the United States are slightly more likely to vote Republican than those born outside the country, which could be significant over the long term. (Last fall, Pew found that the party split for U.S.-born Hispanics was 62-26 in favor of the Democrats, vs. 70-18 for those born outside the country.) A poll conducted last August by Fox News, though, determined that support for DACA was widespread among Hispanics, regardless of country of origin. About 9 in 10 Hispanics in each group felt that those who’d immigrated as children should be allowed to apply for citizenship.

Will opposition to DACA be detrimental to the GOP over the long term? It’s hard to say. Obama enjoyed a bump in his popularity when he proposed the policy in the first place, though that overlapped with the 2012 election, and his popularity with Hispanics sank again afterward. When he announced a similar policy for the parents of those immigrants in late 2014 (DAPA), he saw a bigger, more sustained surge in support from Hispanics.

For Trump, the choice is simpler: Deliver for that core base of support, or worry about the long-term implications of undercutting a popular program for his party. In that light, the way the announcement was made was simply bizarre. By having Sessions announce the shift, Trump guaranteed that DACA would be presented in the least favorable light imaginable. Sessions has long been an immigration hard-liner and was among those in the White House pushing to undo Obama’s action.

More seasoned or sensitive politicians might have had the announcement made by someone who could present a sympathetic case for the change, a case that could be informed by, say, polling. The group that Trump’s team needs to sell on the change, after all, isn’t his base, which agrees with the decision. It’s everyone else. But the announcement came from the guy who knows and is sympathetic to Trump’s core supporters and who presented a case meant solely to assure that base that he stands with them.

Or, as Breitbart’s White House reporter had it:

There is one interesting aspect to the DACA announcement, though. For once, Trump seems to have actually had a momentary pause before siding with his base.

Scott Clement contributed to this report. It has been updated following Sessions’s announcement.