Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, one of the latest presidential candidates to enter the race, says there is only one way Democrats can beat President Trump on his signature immigration issue in working-class places such as Ryan’s Youngstown district: Start by talking to voters about border security.
“You can’t come to Ohio and the Great Lakes states and assure them about immigration without first and foremost assuring people that you are going to protect their children,” Ryan said. “It has to be a lot smarter and more effective than it is now.”
But so far this year, most of Ryan’s rivals have chosen a different path, almost entirely focused on denouncing Trump’s policies as un-American, bigoted and inhumane. At the same time, Democrats are proposing policies that are more welcoming to undocumented immigrants than anything offered by President Barack Obama or, in some cases, the party’s last nominee, Hillary Clinton.
The result is a Democratic primary debate that is far more liberal on immigration than any previous campaign, fueling dissent over whether the party is downplaying concern about the spiking number of immigrants crossing the border and giving Trump an unneeded boost in key swing states as it tries to animate its left-leaning voters.
At the heart of the problem is the stark divide between liberal Democratic primary voters and white working-class swing voters when it comes to the security issues around immigration.
The numbers help explain Trump’s strategy of fanning fear about immigration while creating controversy around the issue that tends to enrage Democratic voters. In a typical provocation, Trump said Friday that he was considering releasing detained immigrants in liberal cities as punishment for the Democrats’ refusal to change immigration laws. A few weeks earlier, he labeled Democrats the party of “open borders, drugs and crime.”
Such statements are designed in part to peel away working-class white voters who might otherwise choose Democrats.
A December poll by the Pew Research Center asked about demographic trends that will make the country majority nonwhite by 2050. Among white respondents, 46 percent believed the shift would weaken American customs and values, compared with 23 percent who said it would strengthen them.
Those without college degrees were more likely to say the shift would weaken the country, and there were also clear regional differences: 37 percent of whites in Western states said the change would weaken customs and values, compared with 47 percent of whites in Midwestern states.
A January Quinnipiac poll, moreover, found that 5 percent of Democratic voters agreed with the unsupported claim that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than American citizens are. That compared with 24 percent of independent voters and 39 percent of white voters without college degrees.
“There is something about the issue of immigration that makes people lose sight of where the American public is,” said Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who worked on the House races in 2018 and has done extensive research on white voters who aren’t college-educated. “It becomes a really difficult issue if we choose to talk about it in terms that are not in the way the American people are talking about it.”
Former housing secretary Julián Castro, who says the border is now “more secure” than ever, wants to remove criminal charges for those who cross without authorization. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), whose only mention of border security in her announcement speech was a condemnation of child separation, recently introduced a bill to let undocumented young people work in Congress. And the reintroduced Medicare-for-all plan of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which has been endorsed by several of his rivals, would extend free health care to 11 million undocumented immigrants who were not covered by the Affordable Care Act.
A similar pivot has been playing out in Congress, where some Democrats have been calling for new limits on funding for migrant detention and immigration enforcement, despite the substantial increase in recent months in the number of migrants detained at the border. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has taken to mocking Democrats for developing an “allergy to border security.”
The divergence between the party’s immigration pitch and stubborn general-election realities could create challenges, particularly in the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which were all won narrowly by Trump in 2016.
Several Democratic strategists involved in presidential politics say they worry Democratic primary voters have been radicalized by anger at Trump’s controversial and racially insensitive approach to immigration. That was a mistake many in the party concluded occurred in 2016, when Clinton ceded the security aspect of immigration to Trump in an effort to increase enthusiasm among younger and nonwhite voters. At one forum in 2015, she promised to be a “much less harsh and aggressive enforcer” than Obama, who had been criticized by Hispanic groups as too punitive.
Her campaign’s bet was that she could drive Democratic base turnout without sacrificing too much support among working-class whites in the upper Midwest. Something closer to the reverse happened on Election Day.
In recent days, Obama has even weighed in with a warning to his party about the immigration issue. During an April 6 town hall in Germany, he implored his audience to have more empathy for those who worry that increased immigration will weaken their communities.
“To push back against just what are clearly racist motives of some, we can’t label everybody who is disturbed by immigration as racist,” he said.
The polling numbers suggest differences in policy emphasis based on which side of the party’s strategic divide a candidate rests. Some, such as Ryan and Joe Biden, who is expected to join the race soon, see winning in the Midwest as central to victory in the electoral college and place a higher priority on the concerns of white working-class voters there.
Others, such as Castro, have called for winning border states such as Arizona and his home state of Texas, which have long been in the Republican column, a strategy that requires heightened turnout by Hispanics and those sympathetic to immigrants. Candidates like Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are more focused on increasing turnout among urban and nonwhite communities and have so far focused their immigration rhetoric on the morality of Trump’s policies.
“If you want to appeal to people in the Midwest, it is for the most part because people are looking at it as a security issue,” Brodnitz said. “If you want to raise it in Arizona, they are probably more likely to say it is more about the humane treatment of those at the border.”
For Democrats seeking to improve margins among white voters in the Midwest, the 2018 midterms appear to show a path.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) won reelection in a contest against an immigration hard-liner by focusing on finding bipartisan solutions to immigration that included more border security. In one of her first ads, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), who won a Trump-leaning district along the border, showed herself walking along a border fence. “We need to enforce our borders and enforce our laws against violent traffickers and criminals,” she said in the spot.
That same strategy could be effective now, say some Democratic advisers, in the face of near-daily attempts by Trump to brand the party as not caring about security.
“Democrats have been accused of being for open borders, and they must rebut that accusation, which is inaccurate,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who advised Clinton’s 2016 campaign on immigration issues. “Democratic candidates should be articulating what their reasoning is for smart and effective border enforcement.”
It’s a shift some candidates have gingerly begun to make. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) said weeks before announcing his presidential bid that he wanted to take down the border barriers that divide Mexico and the United States. More recently, he has shifted his position.
“I am not for open borders,” he said in a recent appearance in Iowa. “I do think that there are places where physical barriers along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border makes sense.”
At a town hall April 7 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Sanders also pushed back on a voter’s question that suggested he supported “open borders.”
“If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world,” Sanders said. “And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”
Ryan, who launched his campaign April 4, said the epidemic of opioid addiction in the Midwest has made immigration a pressing issue for many in the region, given the flow of heroin and fentanyl from Mexico.
The key, he says, is to tell voters that Trump is just playing politics with the issue, even as Democrats offer a more compassionate approach to those immigrants now living in the country.
“We could do it a heck of a lot better than him to make them feel more secure,” he said. “They really understand that he is trying to make this a political issue.”
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly quoted Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg. He said, “Democratic candidates should be articulating what their reasoning is for smart and effective border enforcement.”