Donald Trump is shifting to an illegal immigration policy that is a complete echo of the proposals by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio he condemned as “amnesty” during the primaries—which by definition means he won’t be forcibly deporting 11 million people if he becomes president. Those forcible deportations were one of the few clear policy positions he’s taken, and he was screaming about them at his rallies as late as last week.
This gobsmacking flip-flop means two things. First, Trump’s brazen contempt for his own supporters is so thoroughgoing he thinks he can say anything without risking their votes. (It will be up to them to prove him wrong by reacting with anger. If they don’t, his contempt is deserved.) Second, he has finally come to understand he is heading for a defeat so unimaginably humiliating he’s willing to do just about anything to forestall it.
But let’s be clear about what this is not. This is not a play for Hispanic votes, any more than his talk on the campaign trail about the lives of African Americans being so terrible is a play for black votes. This is about generating votes among whites—and likely white women—by talking more nicely.
Call it “compassionate alt-conservatism.”
The key to the Trump shift is to be found in Gallup survey data indicating that he’s not only losing suburbanites but exurbanites as well (meaning those people who live 30 miles or more outside a metropolitan center). Right now, the only voters he’s going to win are rural voters—and even if he generates 90 percent turnout among them and wins 90 percent of their votes, there aren’t enough of them to win the presidency or the electoral college. The total rural population of voting age is around 45 million—out of 235 million potential voters nationally.
Polling indicates Trump is running behind Mitt Romney with nearly every group of voters by age, education, ethnicity, geographic location, you name it. Romney lost by nearly 4 points. The math is inescapable. Trump cannot afford to lose a single Romney voter because he needs to win another 5 million votes on top of every Romney vote just to match what Hillary is likely to get. And right now he’s not going to do that.
So the strategy has to be 1) to get the Romney voters he’s lost and then 2) some way magically improve his standing with Americans sufficient to generate those 5 million extra votes. We’re in part 1 here, with no evidence whatever this move will help him. Meanwhile, God knows what he’ll say tomorrow—even though he’s clearly making these moves under the tutelage of his pollster Kellyanne Conway, who must have shown him he had to do something like this or be remembered as the boob who lost to Crooked Hillary. Who knows if he’ll back off if his core supporters get angry. Or if he’ll go on a raging tear about something entirely exogenous that will remind the very voters he’s trying to woo why they don’t like him. I bet on the last.