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Trump is still digging in on immigration. But public opinion and the midterm scoreboard aren't with him.

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Migrants from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, walk next to the border fence as they prepare to cross it illegally, in Tijuana,
Migrants from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, walk next to the border fence as they prepare to cross it illegally in Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 27, 2018.Mohammed Salem / Reuters

WASHINGTON — As we enter Day 17 of the government shutdown, President Donald Trump isn’t budging on his demands for more than $5 billion in border wall funding, and Democrats are panning his offer to build it from steel rather than concrete.

But amid the noise of his daily repetition of the same demands for a border wall — and the daily coverage of the negotiations over how the impasse could end — it’s important not to obscure the larger truth here: Trump hasn’t been winning on the immigration issue, at the ballot box or in public opinion polls.

Remember, Trump spent the final weeks of the 2018 campaign making aggressive moves to mobilize his base with the immigration issue. He:

But with immigration front and center late last year, the GOP suffered its worst midterm House loss since Watergate. They lost the popular vote by nine points. Democrats gained seven governorships. While Republicans did pick up two Senate seats, they also saw seats flip to Democrats in two Southwestern states (Nevada and Arizona) and got at least a scare in a third (Texas).

And one of the rare bright spots for the House GOP was that Will Hurd, an endangered Texas Republican representing a district that spans a full third of the U.S.-Mexico border, narrowly survived a challenge from a Democrat after being one of the few in his party to vocally oppose Trump’s immigration positions.

Add to that the fact that a majority of Americans — 54 percent — oppose building the wall, per Quinnipiac, with 86 percent of Republicans but just 45 percent of independents and eight percent of Democrats backing the idea. And there’s evidence that, even among Republicans, those who live closer to the border are less likely to support the wall than those who live further away.

So Trump is staking all the political and economic consequences of a lengthy shutdown on an immigration play that hasn’t been shown to be a political winner outside of his own base.

As one of us pointed out this weekend, for Trump, doubling down on the wall isn't just about keeping undocumented immigrants OUT anymore. It's also about keeping his hard-core supporters IN. Why? The base is the difference between a 42 percent approval rating and a 35 percent approval rating.

Shutdown latest: Trump rebrands wall materials as Dems turn up the heat

After yet another series of negotiations over the weekend, Trump is offering what he sees as a concession in the shutdown impasse by suggesting that the wall could be made of steel rather than concrete. He says that he’s prepared to “declare a national emergency” or use the “military version” of eminent domain to seize private property to build the wall. And he says he can “relate” to federal workers who may miss a paycheck this Friday.

But here’s the reality check, per NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell and Geoff Bennett: The wall is about symbolism for both parties, and a change in materials or design won’t make Democrats budge from their view that it’s both a poor policy solution and an ugly statement about American values. The “national emergency” idea — which is both legally dubious and a rejection of years of GOP howls about executive overreach — is mostly about Trump signaling to his base that he’s willing to fight by any means necessary.

And it’s hard to see a statement of vague sympathy for those missing a paycheck as anything but tone-deaf from a man whose entire political persona has been built around claims of massive personal wealth (and who has claimed that most of those who are furloughed or forgoing pay belong to the party that opposes him anyway).

Bolton puts conditions on Trump’s pledge for quick withdrawal from Syria

From NBC’s Carol Lee in Jerusalem: “President Donald Trump will not withdraw American troops from northern Syria until the Turkish government guarantees it won’t then attack Syrian Kurdish forces that have been critical allies in the fight against ISIS, national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday… Since Trump abruptly announced on Dec. 19 that all U.S. forces in Syria would exit immediately, administration officials have shifted the timing to say it would happen more slowly. Officials are now setting a series of conditions for withdrawal that must first be met, which Bolton described as ‘policy decisions that we need to implement.’”

On Sunday, Trump claimed that he never implied an immediate withdrawal, saying “I never said we’d be doing it that quickly.”

But here’s what he said less than a month ago when he announced his Syria decision: “We have won against ISIS. We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly… Our boys, our young women, our men, they're all coming back. And they're coming back now. We won. And that's the way we want it. And that's the way they want it.”

NYT: Biden tells allies he’s not sure his 2020 Democratic rivals can beat Trump

Turning to 2020, don’t miss this reporting from the New York Times on Joe Biden’s thinking about a presidential run. “Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is in the final stages of deciding whether to run for president and has told allies he is skeptical the other Democrats eyeing the White House can defeat President Trump, an assessment that foreshadows a clash between the veteran Washington insider and the more liberal and fresh-faced contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination.”

More: “In one of his calls over the holidays, Mr. Biden repeated a variation of a line he has used publicly: “If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it,” he said, according to the Democrat he spoke to, who shared the conversation on condition of anonymity to discuss a private talk. But then Mr. Biden said something he has not stated so bluntly in public: ‘But I don’t see the candidate who can clearly do what has to be done to win.’”

Here’s our question: How does this kind of messaging play with Democrats who believe the party’s growing gender and racial diversity is one of its best contrasts with the GOP? Or with those who see the party’s future growth not in Biden’s professed blue-collar Midwest base but instead in the Sun Belt or diversifying suburbs nationwide?

Warren pulls in big crowds in Iowa

And speaking of Biden’s rivals, NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald wraps Elizabeth Warren’s trip to Iowa this weekend, calling it “nearly flawless and well-received.” More: “Around 3,000 people turned out to see the Massachusetts senator at five events across the state over three days, a testament to both her political celebrity and the pent-up eagerness among Iowa Democrats to get the race started against President Donald Trump — even if their crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses are still more than a year away.”

Still, as Seitz-Wald notes, questions about Warren’s ability to beat Trump, her DNA-test controversy and her “likeability” (as well as a parallel debate about whether a male candidate would face the same “likeability” coverage) also followed her first big weekend out on the trail.

“Iowans are going to be very concerned about electability,” Iowa Democratic power player Jerry Crawford said. “And that's a hurdle she has yet to cross.”