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Might Trump’s bashing of immigrants backfire at the polls?

An essay by University of Minnesota political scientists Howard Lavine and Wendy Rahn reviews people’s stated attitudes toward immigration and their voting patterns in 2016.

A girl holding a sign at a protest at the Paso del Norte international border crossing bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Saturday.
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Here’s a surprising argument: What if Donald Trump’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric during 2016 actually cost him more votes than it got him?

That’s the provocative thesis of a New York Times op-ed published yesterday by University of Minnesota political scientists Howard Lavine and Wendy Rahn.

If they are right, it certainly stands one conventional strain of How-Trump-Won logic on its head — namely the belief that his xenophobic Build-The-Wall, deport-the-immigrants rhetoric helped gin up support for Trump among voters harboring anti-immigration views and helped him pull off his surprise victory.

Yes, Lavine and Rahn concede, Trump did a bit better than his Republican predecessors among white voters who are opposed to immigration.

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But, they find, Hillary Clinton did a lot better among white voters who favor immigration. So much better that it probably was a net positive for the Democratic ticket and may be one of the key factors that help Clinton and Tim Kaine win the overall popular vote.

Rahn and Lavine lay it out statistically in their piece and the accompanying graphics. And you should click here to read their full Times piece. But, to summarize:

According to exit polling data from the highly regarded American National Election Study (ANES), 48 percent of white voters told ANES that they preferred to see fewer immigrants coming to the United States. And, of those who felt that way, just 21 percent voted for the Democratic ticket. But Democrats lost that group (meaning those who told ANES that they favored a cut in immigration) in all of the last four elections, and the Clinton ticket did only a little worse than her predecessors.

Another 40 percent of all voters told ANES that they preferred to have the level of immigration remain the same as it has been. And Clinton-Kaine received the support of 45 percent of those voters, almost equal to their 48 percent share of the overall vote.

Then there’s the group, about which we seldom hear, that told ANES they preferred to see more immigrants entering the United States. It was just 16 percent of the electorate, but that was actually the highest share in the last four presidential election cycles who gave that answer. And those voters favored Clinton by 72 percent. That represented a really big jump from past three cycles, when only about 50 percent of those who favored more immigration voted for the Democratic ticket.

That’s the big surprising finding. People don’t vote just on one issue. But, at the very least, the big jump in Democratic voting among those who favor more immigration at least raises the possibility that quite a few voters – including some who had voted Republican in the past, moved into the blue camp because they were turned off by Trump‘s immigration-bashing rhetoric.

You can torture those numbers only so far, but …  

The column was headlined: “What if Trump’s Nativism Actually Hurts Him?”