Opinion writer

A big question in our politics right now is whether the coalition that delivered a sizable national popular-vote majority in 2018 to Democrats — and with it control of the House — will endure against President Trump in 2020. That victory, as you know, was partly driven by the huge influx of college-educated and suburban white voters who shifted to Democrats out of disgust and horror with Trump.

Trump made the 2018 elections all about his immigration and border policies — he lied about the migrant caravans for months; he sent the military to the border to dramatize what a threat they supposedly pose; and Republicans ran ads across the country saturated in the most lurid and disgusting anti-immigrant imagery their imaginations could muster.

After the GOP loss, Republicans themselves admitted that Trump’s focus on immigration was a key vulnerability. Either Trump is not capable of acknowledging this, or he doesn’t think it’s relevant to 2020 — perhaps he believes that with him on the ballot, he’ll use immigration to sufficiently drive up turnout among his white base in the Rust Belt, no matter how unpopular his agenda is with the broader public.

The new Post-ABC News poll underscores what a gamble this is for Trump. It finds that overall, the issue is a net negative for him: 44 percent of Americans say Trump’s handling of illegal immigration makes them more likely to oppose his reelection, vs. 31 percent who say it makes them more likely to support him, while 24 percent say it won’t be a factor.

What’s even more interesting, though, is how this breaks down among some of the voter groups who powered the Democratic victory in 2018:

  • Among college-educated whites, 45 percent say Trump’s handling of the issue makes them more likely to oppose his reelection, vs. 34 percent who say the opposite. Among college-educated white women, that’s even more pronounced, at 48 percent to 31 percent.
  • Among suburban voters, this breakdown is 42 percent to 33 percent.
  • Among independents, who also swung substantially toward Democrats in the midterms, that’s 41 percent to 32 percent.
  • Among voters ages 18 to 29, that’s a staggering 55 percent to 22 percent, and among voters ages 30 to 39, it’s 48 percent to 25 percent.

On the flip side, though, the issue works for Trump among the voters in his base:

  • Among rural voters, 45 percent say Trump’s handling of the issue makes them more likely to support his reelection, vs. 29 percent who say it makes them less likely.
  • White voters without a college degree say the same by 43 percent to 34 percent.
  • And get this: Among white evangelical Christians, that breakdown is an overwhelming 63 percent to 16 percent.

The fact that this divide appears to be deepening and enduring, notably among white voters, confirms what Ron Brownstein has observed, that Trump has forced Republicans to increasingly rely on “an electoral base preponderantly tilted toward the white voters most hostile to immigration and most uneasy about demographic change overall.”

Trump’s big idea on immigration has been that making migrants as miserable as possible — say, through separating families — will dissuade them from trying to come here. That has failed, and asylum seeking by families has spiked. Trump declared a national emergency to build his wall, but majorities understood that this was based on lies, and building more barriers won’t actually stop asylum seekers from setting foot on U.S. soil, after which they have the legal right to apply for asylum.

Trump tried to order border officials to break the law and bar asylum seeking entirely, but they defied him, leading him to oust his homeland security secretary. Trump threatened to close down the border, then backed off amid fears it would tank the economy, and then buffoonishly reiterated the threat.

Trump continues to pretend-threaten to dump migrants into Democratic strongholds, to pressure Democrats into giving him legal changes he wants. At his Wisconsin rally, Trump claimed that “we’re sending many of them to sanctuary cities,” which he boasted was his “sick idea.” But that’s apparently a lie: The Associated Press reports that DHS officials rejected the idea as unworkable.

Notably, Trump’s constant claim that the wall is being built is also a lie. It’s interesting that voters in Trump’s base continue to see his immigration agenda as a positive, as Trump constantly has to lie to create the impression that he’s doing what he said he’d do.

The bottom line: Trump might think the immigration contrast will work in his favor, pitting his law-and-order policies against the Democrats’ supposed open-borders lawlessness. But when it comes to the border, Trump increasingly represents cruelty, chaos, failure and incompetence.

To be sure, Democrats will need their own comprehensive approach to the current crisis, and they are now developing such an agenda. The lingering unpopularity of Trump’s agenda gives them a big opening in this regard, and they should try to take control of this debate.

It’s, of course, possible that Trump could still use this issue to juice up his base’s turnout to the degree needed to prevail in 2020, even as his immigration agenda is unpopular with the broader public. But even so, given that this is his signature issue, and given how often we’re told Trump has a mystical connection with the silent majority’s secret support for his policies, that unpopularity is itself a big story.