In a fit of honesty, President Trump summarized his party’s closing argument for the 2018 midterm elections at a rally in Montana on Thursday night.

“This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” Trump said, referring first to his recently confirmed nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and second to a group of migrants making their way from Central America to the United States.

It makes sense that Trump and his party would raise the Kavanaugh nomination fight in the context of the election. It spurred a great deal of interest on both sides of the aisle. But the caravan? Why’s that worth mentioning?

It’s important to keep a few things in mind about this election.

Election Day is shaping up to be more of a turnout battle than normal. Most midterm elections see lower turnout, which is generally an advantage to Republicans since Republican voters tend to vote more heavily. This year there are indications that Democrats are heavily motivated to vote, so Republicans are eager to keep their base stimulated as well to offset that surge.

Pew Research Center released a survey this week showing that no issue was more broadly seen by Republicans as a “very big” problem in the United States than illegal immigration. It was also one of the issues that had the broadest gap between Democrats and Republicans in terms of identifying it as important.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Three-quarters of Republicans identified illegal immigration as a very big problem. Among Democrats, four issues were identified by as large a percentage of the base: health-care costs, gun violence, government ethics and income inequality.

This is part of the challenge of being a Republican these days, one of the key differences since 2016. Republicans have been unilaterally in charge for nearly two years. Were Trump to focus on health-care costs as a campaign issue, it raises a key question: What has he done about it? So Trump and his allies are focusing on things that are outside of their control. Democrats being obstructionists. Law and order. Immigrants headed to the border.

Here’s what Trump said in Montana about that caravan.

"A lot of money’s been passing to people to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day, because they think that’s a negative for us. Number one, they’re being stopped, and, number two, regardless, that’s our issue. ...

"They wanted that caravan, and there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen. A lot of reasons that caravan — 4,000 people. But I just want to thank the Mexican government because they’re stopping it hopefully before it ever gets to Mexico. 

"As you know, I’m willing to send the military to defend our southern border, if necessary. All because of the illegal immigration onslaught brought by the Democrats, because they refuse to acknowledge or to change the laws. They like it. They also figure everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.

“You know. Hey, they’re not so stupid when you think about it, right? But they are crazy..."

That “a lot of money’s been passing” and the “there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen” are both significant. Earlier this week, Trump tweeted an unsourced video showing some people somewhere handing money to some other people who looked like they might be migrants. (Our fact-checking team has taken a look.)

“Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?” he asked cryptically. In Montana he revealed what he was thinking: Democrats were paying these migrants to head to the border for . . . some reason.

Trump alleges sort of obliquely that the migrants were being paid to come to the border and then to come in and vote for Democrats. At the tail end of the 2016 election, he warned in an interview that, were he to lose the presidency, it would be the “last election that the Republicans can win.” Why? Because if Hillary Clinton won “you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in, and they’re going to be legalized, and they’re going to be able to vote, and once that all happens you can forget it.”

At another point, he skipped that “going to be legalized” bit, taking a border sheriff’s misspoken words at face value and asserted that illegal immigrants came across the border directly to vote. After the election, of course, he tried to downplay his popular vote loss by insisting that this had in fact happened, it was just that all of the illegal immigrants went to California to cast their votes for some reason, where he was already going to lose the electoral-vote fight.

There was no evidence of any significant voter fraud in the election, but it served a few useful goals for Trump: saving face, targeting immigrants as a threat and engaging his base in his defense.

If that sounds familiar, it should. By targeting this caravan of migrants, Trump gets to do all of those things again.

He targeted a caravan of migrants earlier this year, you’ll remember. Trump is legitimately annoyed at a surge in migrants at the southern border in recent months, but it’s worth noting that the caravan that got to the U.S.-Mexico border in late April didn’t do much to affect that trend.

Apprehensions at the border and the number of people turned away plunged after Trump won election, but since then, the numbers have crept back up. There was a surge in the spring of this year, but that correlated to the caravan’s arrival. It doesn’t appear to have been spurred by it.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Why not? Because a number were turned away or fell off at various points along the journey north. About 400 made it to Tijuana; 228 sought entry to the United States. Those were not illegal entries, mind you. They entered at border crossings and sought asylum.

Those numbers raise another obvious point: Democrats are paying migrants to trek north to gain . . . 200 votes? This current caravan is apparently about three times bigger than the group earlier this year, so that gets Democrats a robust 600 votes for the low, low cost of handing Trump an issue he could raise at campaign rallies.

Honestly, Trump’s assertion in Montana that immigration is “our issue” is sort of baffling. It is indeed your issue! You made that point yourself by noting directly that you intended to politicize the caravan alongside Kavanaugh. Railing against illegal immigration is central to Trump’s political pitch in general, so it makes no sense for the Democrats to try to force the issue into the spotlight by paying people to come north.

Trump’s blending all sorts of his favorite conspiracy theories at the moment — devious Democrats committing crimes, wealthy benefactors such as George Soros tilting the scales, nefarious migrants seeking to break the law — into a weird goulash that was even confusing to him. “Why would the Democrats do that??” he asked, in essence. The answer is: They wouldn’t.

Trump is president because he leveraged partisanship and an energized lower-turnout electorate freaked out about immigrants to cobble together the votes he needed. He both reinforced the need to vote and gave himself an out by implying that the system was rigged against him.

Two years later, same drill. The Democrats are cheating on the issue you care about the most, so go vote — and if you don’t vote enough, it’s the illegal voters’ fault. It’s nonsensical, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.