The Memo

The Memo: Trump suffers early damage on separations

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The political fallout from child separations is reverberating through Washington and some early evidence suggests it has damaged President Trump’s standing — a rare occasion when playing to his base may have backfired.

Whether the furor will affect the GOP’s performance in November’s midterm elections is a very different question, according to experts.

{mosads}Gallup’s weekly polling results showed Trump’s net approval rating having fallen in the past week by about 9 percentage points. That tumble suggests that the president may be wrong if he believes his hard line on immigration always delivers a political dividend.

On Twitter, however, Trump has stuck with a very aggressive line ever since signing an executive order last week intended to end the forced separations that have split more than 2,000 children from their family members.

Trump tweeted on Monday morning that people should “simply be stopped at the Border and told they cannot come into the U.S. illegally.”

He has said more than once that he does not consider more judges to be a solution to the problem, implying that he believes people attempting to cross the border have no right to due process.

Some Republicans express concern that the party could have suffered reputational damage at the president’s hands.

“Every once in a while an issue breaks through that you just can’t distract from, because it speaks to the heart,” said Rick Tyler, a conservative consultant who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, “This is one of those issues that will be remembered historically — there was an administration that tore families apart and didn’t have a means to reunite them. That is shameful.”

But Tyler also acknowledged that it could take a while for that historical perspective to develop. He cautioned that, in the hyperpolarized politics of the moment, even a storm of this magnitude might not scramble the lines of party identity.

“Voters are so extremely divided on every issue including immigration that they can’t see the forest for the trees,” he said. “They have picked a team and whatever the team decides, they are for. It’s over time that they will recognize the moral judgments they made were right or wrong.”

For the moment, however, the team battle lines may hold. About 90 percent of Republican voters currently approve of Trump’s performance, according to the most recent polling. Those figures are likely fueled in part by a strong economy, with robust growth and unemployment at historic lows.

The policy that led to the separations of children from their families was unpopular with Americans as a whole, but the response among Republican voters has been much more ambivalent.

A CBS News poll released on Sunday found 72 percent of Americans were opposed to the policy but Republicans evenly split on it. A week ago, a Quinnipiac University poll found Republican voters backing the separations, by 55 percent to 35 percent.

There is also the complicated landscape of the midterm elections to consider.

Democrats will be hoping to maximize their gains in the House by winning suburban districts where a significant number of independent-minded and centrist voters still proliferate. But the Senate map is much different, with Democratic incumbents under pressure to hold on to their seats in states such as West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri that Trump won by wide margins in 2016.

“The controversies of the last week may help some Republican challengers to Democratic senators in deep-red states,” said GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres. “But it makes the task of Republican incumbents representing suburban and more diverse districts more challenging.”

Cam Savage, a Republican consultant who has worked on numerous races in his native Indiana, cautioned that the controversy, as all-consuming as it seems right now, is happening months before the midterms — with an endless churn of other big stories doubtless still to come.

Regarding Trump’s concentration on immigration during the campaign, Savage asserted, “I don’t think there’s any question that it drew supporters to his campaign — but I don’t think there is any question that it had the opposite effect as well.”

He said the difficulty in making predictions about the midterms is “knowing what is going to be on people’s minds when they vote. I certainly don’t think it was immigration on people’s minds in October 2016, in the final weeks of the campaign.”

But other Republicans worry about what happens further down the line.

Ayres, who has argued for years that the GOP needs to appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate, was among those anxious that Trump’s overall approach — from the campaign trail chants of “build the wall” to the current “zero tolerance” controversy — could exact a serious political price.

“Nothing has repealed the demographic changes that are relentlessly occurring in the county,” he said. “A successful party on the national level in the 21st century needs to adapt to those changes to be successful in the long run.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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