US Election: Donald Trump's immigration balancing act looks shaky

Trump's meeting with the Mexican President dominated world headlines
Trump's meeting with the Mexican President dominated world headlines
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Donald Trump's poor ratings on Betfair markets have improved slightly in the past week but the confusion and controversy surrounding his immigration positions continue to dog his presidential bid...

"One can understand the dilemma facing Trump and his strategists. He needs moderates to win but equally cannot afford to be labelled a 'flip-flopper' - the tag that has ruined many an American candidate."

After a generally disastrous run ever since becoming the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump has just enjoyed a good week. Though still trailing in the polls and historically weak on Betfair markets, both of those indicators have moved in his favour. At odds of [4.0], he's now rated 25% likely to be Next President, up from 20%.

Some relief, then, for Trump backers who must have been wondering whether he was running out of time to turn things around. Entering Labor Day weekend - historically regarded as the starting gun for the main campaign, when voters start to get really engaged - Trump's poll deficit is not irreversible, as this analysis explains.

Nevertheless, it remains a very tall order, especially with some polls suggesting 90% have already made their minds up. At the very least, to turn around an average 5% deficit, Trump needs to significantly alter the election narrative.

This week's mini-comeback is probably due to Hillary Clinton for once enduring a worse news cycle, as damaging revelations about her emails continue to seep out. However as anyone who has been watching will know, this is not typical of the last 14 months. The media cannot help talking about Trump, and he can't help giving them endless material to work with. Love or hate him, Trump is undeniably interesting and his presence has turned the entire election into a referendum on him.

Not a great scenario for a candidate whose approval ratings are deep underwater, particularly among women and minorities. A belated recognition of this fundamental problem likely explain recent attempts to adopt a softer tone about his signature issue - immigration. Though not necessarily the most salient election issue, it is pivotal to Trump's image and his main talking point.

If there is one policy which the world associates with Trump, it is building a wall with Mexico and demanding they pay for it. On Wednesday he reiterated the USA's right to do so in a joint address with the Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. Trump said afterwards that they hadn't discussed who would pay, but Nieto has contradicted that account since, saying he made it clear Mexico would not pay.

Leaving aside that important detail, the imagery was very good for the Republican nominee. Trump appeared alongside a world leader, talked about a co-operative relationship and didn't look out of place or cause a diplomatic crisis. For once, he looked like a seasoned politician who knew how to project himself during an election campaign.

However within hours, the new approach had unravelled, after a fiery, hard-line speech in Phoenix, Arizona. Instead of statesmanship, the headlines concerned Trump doubling down on commitments to build the wall and mass deportation.

Hardline supporters like Ann Coulter were overjoyed, declaring it the greatest speech ever. Hispanic Conservatives - the very people he'd been courting for weeks - immediately begun withdrawing endorsements. Fact-checkers took it apart.

One can understand the dilemma facing Trump and his strategists. He needs moderates to win but equally cannot afford to be labelled a 'flip-flopper' - the tag that has ruined many an American candidate in recent decades. By even talking about legalisation, commentators recall how he brutally labelled Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as 'pro-amnesty' during the primaries. Inspired by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, #AmnestyDon trended earlier this week.

Grassroots Conservatives, an essential component of any route to victory, are not likely to react well to any softening. During the primaries, arch enemy Ted Cruz predicted Trump would flip-flop, labelling his position as 'touchback immigration'. And merely the hint of a softer approach to immigration led to condemnation from some of his strongest supporters like Rush Limbaugh. Sarah Palin warned of 'massive disappointment' if Trump softened his stance.

Even Coulter, who is promoting her 'In Trump We Trust' book, wobbled. When Trump showed some compassion in explaining why it would be hard to deport somebody who'd lived in the States for 20 years, she mocked him on Twitter.

Ultimately, we are now seeing the damaging electoral effect of the Republicans' anarchic 17-runner primary. Their most electable candidates were outflanked by Trump's policy slogans that, while appealing to the base, were toxic with the wider electorate. That early wave of controversy built a political brand, re-enforced by relentless publicity, which turned a majority against him. It is probably too late to change course.

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Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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