The Supreme Court issued two major decisions Thursday that could quickly reverberate in a 2016 presidential campaign.
First, the court upheld the University of Texas's limited use of affirmative action in its admissions. Then, it announced it deadlocked on President Obama's plan to exempt some undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to work legally. That tie meant a lower-court decision halting the program will stand.
In other words: One is a substantial decision in favor of the political left on affirmative action, and the other is a major setback for the Obama administration on illegal immigration.
But both, in a somewhat similar way, have the potential to ignite passions in the 2016 campaign — because both involve long-simmering tensions over race that have occasionally boiled to the surface this year.
Immigration, of course, has already been a major issue in the 2016 campaign and in Congress, with Republicans suing the administration to halt the program and Donald Trump ratcheting up the rhetoric on deporting illegal immigrants and erecting a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Affirmative action has not been such a big issue — or really an issue at all. And in some ways, it's surprising that it has not. Trump's campaign has ventured into plenty of racially tinged territory, and his base of support overwhelmingly thinks that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as against blacks and other minorities. In fact, in a just-released poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 81 percent of Trump backers and 72 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.
About two-thirds of white, working-class Americans — the foundation of Trump's base — also agree that discrimination against whites is a big problem.
Similarly, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in March showed 28 percent thought discrimination against whites was worse, while 40 percent thought discrimination against blacks and Hispanics was worse. Our analysis at the time showed the former sentiment was a major driver of support for Trump's candidacy in the GOP primary.
Perhaps more than any other issue, affirmative action has for decades been cited by conservatives as the chief example of this kind of reverse discrimination — in large part because it is a codified form of giving preference to minority groups.
The bigger decision Thursday, though, was the immigration one. Republicans for years have balked at joining with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would address the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Citing this, President Obama sought to use his executive authority to prevent the deportation first of young undocumented immigrants and then of millions more.
Republicans sued — and now effectively won — and have pressed the issue politically, sometimes in ways GOP leaders would rather they did not.
Trump's campaign from Day 1 took a very hard line on immigration, with the candidate calling illegal Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" in his announcement speech a little over a year ago. That comment was the first of many from Trump that has alienated minority groups.
But as I wrote early Thursday, Trump's rhetoric on immigration is also a big part of why he won the GOP nomination. Trump appealed to a limited but vocal group of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters who are more strident than the rest of the GOP on immigrant issues -- and globalization more broadly.
The same PRRI poll from above shows just 13 percent of Trump backers and 26 percent of Republicans think that immigrants — all immigrants, not just undocumented ones — strengthen our country. Eight in 10 Trump backers and 65 percent of Republicans, by contrast, see immigrants as a burden.
The same poll showed even a majority of Trump backers, though, support the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Just 25 percent of all Republicans and 41 percent of all Trump backers say they want all illegal immigrants deported.
Yet the party has fought back hard against Obama's method of stopping those deportations, saying doing so unilaterally is wrong. And the practical effect of Thursday's Supreme Court decision is that deportations will continue and that this debate will begin anew.
The decision is being hailed by GOP leaders and grass-roots alike, but it also pumps new life into an issue that the party would probably rather not keep talking about in the 2016 election — both because its party is split on the issue and because it continues to worry (for good reason) that Trump's rhetoric on issues such as immigration and affirmative action is and could continue to alienate black and Latino voters. Just this week, video circulated of Trump saying in 1989 that he wished he were an "educated black" — the unmistakable implication being that programs like affirmative action would have made him even more successful.
Thursday's decision will not do anything to tamp down that kind of rhetoric.