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Trump's immigration messaging is being pushed hard in swing states. But it's not working.

Unlike in 2016, Trump's anti-immigration strategy is more subtle and thus flying under the radar of much of the national media.
Image: President Donald Trump attends campaign event at Tucson International Airport
President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at Tucson International Airport in Arizona on Monday.Carlos Barria / Reuters

Immigration isn’t dominating President Donald Trump's Twitter feed these days but make no mistake: The issue is still at the heart of his re-election strategy.

Just read the signs, or in this case, the government-funded billboards scattered along Pennsylvania highways of “wanted” immigrants and threats of ICE raids in “sanctuary cities.” Or follow the money, which reveals an expensive campaign ad strategy that embeds Trump’s hallmark anti-immigrant dog whistles into his 2020 “law and order” messaging.

Despite the many distractions Trump manufactures, immigration is still very much a MAGA weapon of choice.

What becomes clear is that despite the many distractions Trump manufactures, immigration is still very much a MAGA weapon of choice. But unlike 2016, he’s brandishing that weapon in a more veiled and targeted way: under the radar of much of the national media, vis-à-vis nuanced messaging and targeted ads aimed at swing voters. More important, and unlike in 2016, his strategy is falling flat in the battleground states he needs to win.

The Trump campaign’s spending brings its strategic priorities into clear focus. Since April, the campaign has spent over $7 million on anti-immigrant Facebook ads alone, according to the marketing and communications organization Bully Pulpit Interactive. The campaign has also reserved more than $95 million in TV time this fall, targeting battleground states like Pennsylvania with ads saturated in fear-driven narratives around the left’s “radical” approach to immigration and refugees from “terrorist” countries. A new report over the weekend revealed that immigration was Trump’s second biggest TV ad buy from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, only behind the topic of “China.”

This doesn’t account for other campaign expenditures pushing anti-immigrant messages, like the $10 million-plus YouTube campaign featuring Trump’s “Radical, Extreme, Left” ad that connects tax increases with undocumented immigrants. It also doesn’t account for the campaign’s direct mail strategy — which weaponizes amnesty as “evidence” of Biden’s embrace of the “radical left” — or the millions spent by groups like the America First Action Super PAC on anti-immigrant ads.

Trump isn’t sparing any expense on the issue. But he is massaging the message.

Despite eking out a victory in 2016, when Trump rallied his base by mounting an all-out assault on immigrants, the president quickly learned in 2018 that his primitive call to suburbia (under the auspices of a migrant “caravan”) no longer worked. And Republicans who echoed his message, like Lou Barletta, paid the price at the polls.

Hoping for a reprise but noting the voter pivot in 2018, Trump is currently employing his version of subtlety: relying on xenophobic tropes, dog whistles and co-opting his anti-immigrant sentiment with his broader law-and-order message. It’s reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s 1968 suburban campaign play.

Against a backdrop of dwindling support among female suburban voters, Trump is now trying to repackage and resell the same anti-immigration sentiment by fusing it into narratives about the "radical left.” When you connect the dots, what crystalizes is a revamped immigration strategy — rooted in messaging that’s being deployed via highly targeted ad buys.

But here’s the rub: A lot of voters aren’t buying it.

Trump is now trying to repackage and resell the same anti-immigration sentiment by fusing it into narratives about the "radical left.”

In a 2020 voter study developed in collaboration with Civis Analytics, a data science company, we identified nearly 6 million swing voters in Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who moved away from the president and toward Democrats when targeted with values-based immigration content. These critical swing voters — whom we have dubbed “family patriots,” consisting of mostly white, male, noncollege educated suburban voters — are the very voters that Trump is banking on.

The findings of the voter study align with recent battleground polling by the Global Strategy Group that reveal a majority of voters support citizenship for Dreamers and undocumented immigrants, ending family separation and other pro-immigration solutions. The findings also align with what we’re seeing play out in real time — the president’s record and rhetoric on immigration are becoming major political liabilities, especially in the wake of recent horrifying revelations of the shameless implementation of a shrewd, cruel plan to separate children from their parents.

Despite the political backlash — even among voters he needs — the president has kept his foot on the gas, banking on a strategy stuck in the past. So while his anti-immigration message isn’t as brazenly front-and-center as it was in 2016, Trump’s re-election strategy is still grounded in the same cruelty that has underpinned his presidency.

The only difference is that in 2016 he connected the dots for us. This time, we have to do it ourselves.