Republican alarm over immigration is once again dominating the airwaves in the run-up to the first two nominating contests, emerging as growing point of contention between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley.
Trump’s campaign and his outside group have used images of massing migrants in New Hampshire ads attacking Haley’s record on immigration. The former U.N. ambassador and her backers have responded by making immigration the first policy mentioned in her spots.
Other candidates have also focused on the issue. Video of hundreds of migrants walking north, with the superimposed word “Invasion,” opens the latest Iowa ad from Good Fight, a group backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy put up a spot Tuesday with a border-wall testimonial from former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose incendiary immigration comments caused his removal from committee assignments in 2019.
The word “border” has been aired in political ads 1,319 times since the start of the year, more than any other word, including the standard disclaimer terms like “approve” and “message,” according to a Tuesday report from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.
“We’re going to secure our border, no excuses,” Haley says early in the latest spot from her outside group, SFA Fund Inc., in New Hampshire.
The late turn in focus reflects the continued dominance of immigration as an issue in GOP politics, a fact that will probably frame the 2024 general election and could complicate Republican Senate efforts to strike a compromise with the Biden White House this month to toughen border enforcement and reduce illegal crossings.
Strong majorities of Americans have come to support tougher enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. Just 32 percent of the country approve of Biden’s handling of the border in a recent CBS News/YouGov poll, while 35 percent approve of congressional Republicans’ handling of the issue. The Biden administration has taken 6 million migrants into custody at the southern border, according to a recent Department of Homeland Security report. About 2.3 million have been released into the country.
Trump has returned to an old playbook of highlighting the border threat and stoking fear about immigrants, repeatedly using inflammatory and dehumanizing language that garners media coverage and forces fellow Republican leaders to distance themselves from him. The strategy has, in the past, strengthened his hold on the GOP electorate while hurting him among suburban and college-educated voters.
Immigration concerns bubbled up in the 2008 and 2012 elections, at the end of President George W. Bush’s relatively welcoming approach but never took hold as a dominant driver of the campaign debate. That changed in 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy by describing many immigrants as “rapists” who were “bringing drugs.” Trump has run every subsequent campaign with immigration as a central closing message, an effort that was frustrated in 2020 when concerns over covid-19 dominated.
A poll over the New Year’s break by The Economist and YouGov found that more than 3 in 4 Republican voters consider immigration, inflation/prices, jobs/the economy, national security and taxes/government spending to be “very important.” But when asked for the “most important” issue, immigration wins among Republicans, with 24 percent flagging the issue, compared with 11 percent of the entire population. Inflation and prices followed as the most important issue among 16 percent of Republicans.
With Haley rising in the polls at a moment many Republicans see her as the strongest Trump alternative, the issue is at the center of their competition. Trump is seeking to cast Haley as too liberal on the issues, seizing on past comments preaching tolerance for migrants, while Haley has countered by touting efforts to crack down on immigration as governor of South Carolina.
“Immigration is an issue that impacts every state,” said Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesman for MAGA Inc., a group running ads for Trump. “It is one of the issues that carried Trump to victory in 2016. New Hampshire voters will reject Nikki Haley’s soft on illegal immigration agenda.”
The group’s latest ad quotes Haley from a 2015 appearance at the Aspen Institute, where she called for better understanding of what brings migrants to the United States, including a desire for a better life.
“We don’t need to talk about them as criminals,” Haley said.
The Trump campaign has been promoting a similar strategy of attacking its chief rival in New Hampshire. A poll released Tuesday by CNN and the University of New Hampshire found that Haley was just 6 points behind Trump in the first primary state, with Trump garnering only 39 percent of the vote.
Haley and her allies have responded to the onslaught by promoting her own hawkish policy positions in ads and on the campaign trail.
“When Donald Trump was still a Hillary Clinton-supporting liberal, Nikki Haley passed one of the toughest anti-illegal-immigration laws in the country,” said Haley spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “Trump is spending millions of dollars on false, debunked ads because he knows Nikki is rising and he is dropping.”
Haley calls the situation at the border “an absolute dereliction of duty” and regularly draws laughs for saying she went to the border and “didn’t pull a Kamala and go and come back.”
“We passed one of the toughest illegal immigration laws in the country. Obama sued us over it,” she says while recalling her time as South Carolina governor.
Haley also discusses her parents when talking about immigration and uses them as a counterexample to migrants entering the country illegally.
“Why are you letting them cut the line? My parents came here legally. They put in the time; they put in the price,” she said recently in Indianola, Iowa. “They are completely offended by what’s happened. And my mom always said if they don’t follow the law to come to this country, they won’t follow the law when they get to this country.”
Trump has continued his strategy of using divisive immigration rhetoric to drive media coverage of his campaign before the election. During the 2018 midterm campaign, he released an ad that was later pulled from Fox News, CNN and NBC because it was considered so racially insensitive. The ad cut between footage of large numbers of migrants and a convicted Hispanic undocumented murderer boasting that he would have liked to kill more people.
More recently, Trump has been repeatedly speaking about migrants as “poisoning the blood of our country.” The latest immigration ad from MAGA Inc. was called “Poisoning.”
The issue has been a topic of discussion at recent Haley events. Karyn Schlecht, who attended a Haley town hall in Indianola on Saturday, said her top issue this election is the border.
“It’s the United States of America. The border is literally like our country, and we need to do something down there,” said Schlecht, who is still deciding between Haley and DeSantis.
Democratic strategists expect this pattern to reemerge in the general election. In the 2018 cycle, the Weslyan Media Project found that 81 percent of the ads that discussed immigration came from pro-Republican sponsors. An AdImpact analysis for the Immigration Hub, a Democratic-leaning group, found that GOP candidates and supportive groups spent over $171 million on ads that mentioned immigration in 10 battleground states.
Later this year, the Republican playbook will continue, said Beatriz Lopez, deputy director of the Immigration Hub.
“Their spending on immigration ads will be on steroids for sure,” she said. “They are very disciplined on focusing in and exacerbating the fears of suburbanites and rural Americans.”
Bob Schneider, 72, attended a Haley meet-and-greet last week and said he supported Biden in 2020 and in the New Hampshire primary but thought he “would do a lot more than he’s doing.” The Londonderry resident said, “I’m just not happy with Biden, but I can’t see voting for Trump,” pointing to what he sees as Biden’s failure to deliver on the economy and the border.
Maeve Reston contributed to this report.