As Donald Trump continues to weigh the pros and cons of forcefully deporting the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, he turned to the resource that has been his most reliable adviser throughout his tumultuous presidential campaign: the polls.
"I'll ask the audience," Trump said Tuesday during an immigration-focused town hall in Austin that was hosted by Fox News and broadcast on Wednesday night. "You have somebody who is terrific, who has been here ... a long time. A long court proceeding, long everything, okay? In other words, to get them out, can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me. I mean, I don't know. You tell me. I want to know."
Fox News's Sean Hannity, who was moderating the event, jumped in to help execute this spur-of-the-moment poll, asking the crowd: "How many think they should go?"
The crowd loudly cheered, and it was unclear if that was the reaction Trump wanted or not, as his exact position on mass deportations has become murky.
"Do it again. Do it again," Trump said. "So, let me ask you, because this is like, this place is packed. Does everybody get this kind of a crowd?"
"No," Hannity told Trump with a laugh. "No."
Trump then posed his question to the crowd for a second time and made the theoretical illegal immigrant someone the crowd could more easily sympathize with: "You have somebody that has been in the country for 20 years. He has done a great job, has a job, everything else, okay? Do we take him and the family — her or him or whatever — and send them out?"
"No!" some people in the crowd shouted.
"Or," Trump said, then laying out why that illegal immigrant might not be quite such a sympathetic case because he or she jumped the line and "that's a little unfair" to those who came in legally. After mulling this conundrum aloud, Trump tried his poll question a third time.
"So do we tell these people to get out, No. 1, or do we work with them and let them stay in some cases," Trump said, as the crowd broke into shouting.
It was impossible to know who wanted what. Trump decided to set a baseline and ask a question that everyone could agree on.
"So the bad ones? The gang members, all of them, what do you think?" Trump said as the crowd cheered the deportation of immigrants who have broken the law. "Does anybody disagree on the gang members?"
The crowd responded in unison: "Noooo!"
"Is there one person?" Trump said. "Yeah, there's a gang member over there. Okay, there is one person?"
Trump then told the crowd of the one deportation position that he has committed to: quickly deporting all illegal immigrants who have committed a crime, although he has not said how severe of a crime it must be.
"They're going to be gone like so fast your head will spin," Trump said. "Okay? So that's easy."
Trump then returned to the not-so-easy question facing him and conducted a fifth poll.
"So, now we have the person — 20 years been an upstanding person, the family is great, everyone is great," Trump said. "Do we throw them out or do we work with them?"
Trump gave two clear voting options: "No. 1, we'll say: Throw out. No. 2, we work with them. Ready? No. 1."
The crowd cheered and clapped.
"No. 2," Trump said.
The crowd again cheered and clapped a bit louder, seeming to suggest more support for not deporting all 11 million people.
Hannity then interrupted Trump's game-show-style poll and tried to bring the conversation back to what the candidate himself believes.
Hannity repeated Trump's position back to him for confirmation: Originally, Trump said "they're all out and there was a big brouhaha" but now the candidate is "sort of indicating that there will be some flexibility" for immigrants who have been in the country for a long time and are upstanding citizens.
"But here's the big question, though," Hannity said.
"Go ahead," Trump said with a sigh.
"No citizenship?" Hannity asked.
"No citizenship," Trump said, as the crowd clapped. "No citizenship."
Hannity then turned to crowd: "Everyone agree with that?"
The crowd loudly cheered — perhaps it was as loud as they cheered for that winning option seconds earlier but, frankly, the whole room was cheering for everything Trump was saying without much measurable difference.
"Let me go a step further," Trump said. "They will pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There's no amnesty as such. There's no amnesty. But we work with them."
Trump then tried polling the audience a seventh time, again describing an immigrant with a family who has "been here for 15 or 20 years."
"Look, this is like a poll," Trump said. "There's thousands of people in this room. Who wants those people thrown out?"
A man in the audience bellowed: "I do!"
"Well, who wants them, who wants them?" Trump said, searching for support for a position that he once criticized. "Who's the guy who wants them thrown out? ... Stand up, stand up!"
The camera panned to a yelling man with white hair wearing a T-shirt over a dress shirt. Others could be seen standing and shouting while most of the audience sat and listened to the sound of conflicted division.
Trump tried the poll an eighth time.
"So who wants to — by the way, no amnesty, no citizenship, et cetera — who doesn't want them thrown out?" Trump said. "Who does not want them thrown out?"
As the crowd cheered, Hannity again tried to bring it back to Trump.
"Mr. Trump, that raises a really important question. ... What does your gut tell you you want to do?" Hannity said.
"Well, look, this is like a poll, this is like a poll," said Trump, whose whole candidacy has revolved around poll numbers, which lately have fallen out of his favor. "And I love that guy that stood up and said — where is that guy? I love this guy. This is my guy."
Trump's stubborn opposition to illegal immigration was at the heart of his unexpected success in the Republican primaries, and he earned the loyalty of conservatives who appreciated his political incorrectness. Trump was the guy who told his fellow Republican candidates to speak English, not Spanish, and mocked those who tried to approach immigration reform with empathy. He embraced immigration positions that had long existed at the fringes of the Republican Party, opposing birthright citizenship, calling for the construction of a wall on the southern border and promising to deport all 11 million immigrants illegally in the country.
But suddenly in the past few days, Trump has started to sound like those establishment Republicans, the senators and governors who insisted months ago during the primary that immigration reform was an issue the party had to embrace and should embrace.
"I mean, I get it. I get it. And I understand what you're saying," Trump said, talking directly to the supporter who stood to yell, subtly reminding the nominee of the risks of dramatically changing his position. "But this is sort of like a poll, and this is what I'm getting all over the country. ... We're going to come out with a decision very soon."