In the last days of the campaign, the president is going all in on turning out his base. But base voters aren’t the only ones Republicans need.
The ad has drawn immediate comparisons to the infamous “Willie Horton” spot that Republicans used to attack the Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election, though as the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse notes, it’s actually worse: The makers of the Horton ad were at least ashamed of inflaming racial tension, while the president is proudly trumpeting his. (It’s also not running on television anywhere. Instead, the Trump team is relying on word of mouth and media coverage to spread it, so that even writing critically turns critics into abettors.)
.. It seems just as likely that
- Trump is resorting to immigration at this stage because, even though the economy is strong, his signature policies, like a big tax cut, aren’t popular; because
- his health-care position is downright unpopular; and because,
- without Hillary Clinton in the mix, he doesn’t have an effective villain against whom he can campaign.
Just because it’s a desperation play doesn’t mean it won’t work. But if it does, it will do so not by persuading swing voters, but by driving as many Trump-supporting voters to the polls as possible, and neutralizing Democratic advantages on enthusiasm and turnout. The problem is that while Trump’s base remains devoted, it’s also slowly shrinking. Along with others, I have argued for months that Trump’s strategy of only appealing to his hardest-core supporters and not making any effort to expand his coalition is a dangerous strategy, since his base remains a small share of the electorate. The president’s decision to go all in on immigration in the last week of the midterms will provide a crucial test of whether the base is indeed insufficient—or whether he once more knows something the political class doesn’t.