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Exclusive: New poll from Bannon group pushes hard-edged strategy for GOP

Exclusive: New poll from Bannon group pushes hard-edged strategy for GOP
© The Hill

Immigration, impeachment, trade and a full-bore effort to portray Democrats as hard-line leftists in thrall to House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP strategist says Trump could want border wall fight to continue to excite base McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' MORE (D-Calif.) — that’s the recipe for success for the GOP in the midterm elections, according to a new poll obtained exclusively by The Hill.

Those are the issues that can shift voters nationwide and shore up Republicans in endangered GOP districts, the poll suggests.

But the survey will be controversial for two reasons.

First, its findings suggest that the GOP’s best chances for keeping the House in November lie in stoking hot issues even further.

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Second, it was commissioned by Citizens of the American Republic, the group led by Stephen Bannon, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE’s former chief strategist and a contentious figure.

“I thought we needed to get into the big themes about this election,” Bannon said, asked about his reasons for commissioning the poll. “There was too much small-ball being played, people looking at this simply district by district.” 

The poll, conducted by GOP pollster John McLaughlin in consultation with Patrick Caddell, a veteran of President Carter’s White House, suggested that the Democrats’ current polling advantage in the midterms could be narrowed significantly if the GOP runs an aggressive campaign — rather than the softer, economy-first option that more establishment-minded Republicans would prefer. 

The survey was split into two parts, one with roughly 1,200 respondents nationwide and another focused on roughly 40 competitive House districts, which had 850 respondents.

In both cases, the pollsters initially asked respondents about their voting intentions, then posed a number of stark questions on contentious issues and asked if their voting intentions had changed.

In the national poll, an initial 9-point edge for Democrats was reduced to 2 points by the end of the survey. The poll among voters in competitive districts expanded a negligible GOP edge, of less than a single percentage point, to a 5-point advantage.

The change came after hard-edged questions that sought to portray Trump as the disruptor of a stale status quo — and the Democrats as the party of open borders, impeachment and Pelosi.

For example, one question asked respondents whether they believed the U.S. should have “an open borders immigration policy” or whether “illegal immigration is just that — illegal.” 

In the national poll, 65.3 percent of respondents said the latter option was closer to their view, while only 27.5 percent said the former.

The Democratic Party does not favor open borders as that term is generally understood — free migration and no border controls.

But Bannon and his group clearly hope to use political jiu-jitsu to turn some positions that emanate from the left of the Democratic Party — such as calls for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — to Republican advantage.

In the national survey, 27.9 percent of respondents favored the abolition of ICE, whereas 57.6 percent opposed it.

Critics will say the suggestion that Trump and the GOP further intensify their focus on immigration is proof that Bannon and his allies are promoting a nativist and xenophobic agenda. 

But Bannon pushes back on such charges. 

“People will call you racist, nativist and xenophobic, and the point is that it is the exact opposite,” he insisted, adding that Trump’s policies are “why you are starting to see wages of blue-collar workers rise. He is stopping the mass illegal immigration that is competing with working people of every race.”

Bannon has long proposed framing the midterm elections as a referendum on Trump and on whether he should be impeached. In the strategist’s view, this appeal would get more reticent Republicans to the polls. 

In the national poll, when respondents were asked whether they thought impeachment proceedings would hurt or help the economy, roughly 15 percent said it would help and 48 percent said it would hurt. 

Caddell argued: “The issue is, do you want to put the country through impeachment? [The results] show how even people who don’t like Trump believe that this is not the American way.”

Caddell also dismissed suggestions that a more moderate approach from the GOP, less focused on divisive issues, would succeed.

“If they adopted a ‘Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP GOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Adelsons donated M in September to help GOP in midterms MORE Republican’ position, it would sink the Republican Party, because you would not see the kind of swing we showed in this poll,” he asserted, referring to the outgoing Speaker of the House. “You have to have a sharper election if you want to win a midterm.”

The issue of illegal immigration, Caddell said, was “a barnburner.” But he also placed this in a broader context, where voters believed an elite political establishment had governed in its own interest — an understanding that he said fueled Trump’s 2016 presidential victory.

There will be plenty of detractors of the Bannon–Caddell school of thought.

But the poll itself is given credibility because some of its findings are clearly at odds with Bannon's own beliefs and loyalties.

Trump's job approval rating, for example, is deep in negative territory, with only 39 percent of respondents in the national poll giving him the thumbs-up, while almost 59 percent disapprove.

The poll also showed significant support for some Democratic or left-wing figures, notably former President Obama and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP MORE (I-Vt.), even as Pelosi and 2016 presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBudowsky: Closing message for Democrats Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP mocks Clinton after minor vehicle collision outside Mendendez campaign event MORE were much less popular.

Bannon insists, whatever the complications, the survey is proof his approach represents the party’s best chance in a difficult political environment.

“This is going to be a narrow gate that you have to pass through to hold the House,” he said.