The Capitol building stands behind caution tape at a construction site in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump's Wall Shutdown Sets Table for a Risky 2020 Gamble

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s decision to force a government shutdown over his demand for border wall funding is part of an all-in bet that immigration is the singular issue that will keep his political base intact and carry him to re-election.

Trump won the White House in part by depicting the nation as beset by uncontrolled immigration that was the root of a complex set of problems, from lost jobs, to crime, to the opioid epidemic, that drove the economic and cultural grievances of his voters. Critics dismiss that portrayal as inaccurate and xenophobic, but it’s taken root.

The border wall -- whether it’s a concrete barrier or “artistically designed steel slats,” as Trump recently described it -- has become a potent symbol of that for the president and his supporters.

“Immigration is the policy issue that most immediately connects to national identity issues. And that’s the identity crisis we’re going through in the West,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates cutting immigration to the U.S. “Talking about the wall was a shorthand way for Trump to say he was actually committed to enforcing immigration laws, unlike his predecessors.”

Defining Issue

It’s clearly a defining issue for core Republican voters. In 2016, the 13 percent of voters who cited it as their top concern favored Trump by 31 points, according to exit polls. In 2018 House races, the 23 percent of voters who ranked immigration as their No. 1 issue backed Republican candidates by a 52-point margin. That advantage contributed to Republican Senate wins in states like Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota.

“A wall is tangible,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “To the base, bad things come from other countries: crime, drugs, cheap labor. They think that the wall will keep bad things out.”

Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Sunday on Fox News that Trump’s re-election prospects would be hurt if he failed to keep his promise about building the wall.

Trump's Wall Shutdown Sets Table for a Risky 2020 Gamble

Yet in the midterm elections in November, Trump’s singular focus on the issue and his relentless attacks on a caravan of migrants heading to the U.S. from Central America backfired in states crucial to his hopes for a second term.

In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan -- the three states that elevated him to the White House by a collective margin of 80,000 votes -- Democrats swept all six races for governor and Senate and picked up multiple House seats. Democrats gained control of the House by picking off Republicans in suburban and ethnically diverse House districts, such as Jeff Denham and David Valadao in California, and Florida’s Carlos Curbelo.

Negative Impact

“Our polling took a big hit around the time where the caravan became a prominent issue and birthright citizenship became a prominent issue, so certainly I think that had a negative impact in my diverse district,” Curbelo said.

The issue also binds Trump. He told Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the top Democrats in the House and Senate, at a White House meeting Dec. 11 that he’d be “proud to shut down the government for border security.” But a week later, Trump’s aides signaled the White House was backing down, and the Senate passed a compromise government funding bill -- without the wall money -- by a unanimous voice vote.

Trump's Wall Shutdown Sets Table for a Risky 2020 Gamble

That launched a torrent of criticism from conservative media figures including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who accused the president of betraying his supporters. Conservatives in the House piled on as well, prompting Trump to dig in on wall funding.

‘Got the Message’

The Republican-controlled House then attached $5 billion in wall money to the stopgap spending bill passed by the Senate. The result is a standoff that triggered a partial government shutdown now its second day that could last into January.
“I think he got the message that he had to put up a fight here,” Krikorian said. “That whatever political damage Republicans take from the government shutdown, if any, it will be less than if the president just surrenders on this.”

If Democrats were able to deny Trump the wall funding, “that could potentially undermine his credibility with his own voters,” Krikorian said.

Senator Bob Corker, a retiring Tennessee Republican, called Trump’s reversal “juvenile.”

“This is tyranny of talk radio. How do you deal with that?” he said. "Two talk radio hosts completely flipped a president.” On Sunday Corker told CNN that Trump’s battle for border wall funding is a “made-up fight so the president can look like he’s fighting.”

Voters Diverge

A Quinnipiac poll taken mid-December found that 54 percent of American voters oppose building a wall on the southern border, but 86 percent of Republicans favor it. A recent Marist poll found that GOP voters backed a shutdown if there’s no wall funding by a 36-point margin, contrary to the large majority of Americans who wanted Trump to compromise by a 21-point margin.

“It is Trump’s own relentless rhetoric about the wall -- coupled with an array of dubious, questionable, fear-mongering claims about border security -- that have made the issue such a central one for his base,” said Kelly Greenhill, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She said wall “is a panacea that feels right to a certain segment of U.S. society, even if it is very unlikely to deliver” what Trump has promised.

Pitney said the issue of immigration and a wall, by itself, “will not be enough” to win Trump another term. As with most presidents, the state of the U.S. economy in the election year will have a much bigger influence on Trump’s fate, he said.

“Presidents rise or fall with the state of the overall economy,” he said. “Steel slats won’t keep out a flood of bad economic news.”

For Democrats, the chaotic confrontation over the wall marks a new phase of their long push to make Trump a one-term president.

“We can’t let ourselves normalize the chaos and corruption emanating from the Trump White House -- especially on the brink of him forcing a government shutdown,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said Friday in a fundraising email. “The only way we can uphold the integrity of our democracy is by replacing Trump with a Democratic president in 2020.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.