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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 29: Will Improved Conditions on the Border Help Biden in November?

Sometimes objective reality really does matter in politics, so at New York I raised a question about its impact on perceptions of Biden and Democrats on immigration issues:

There are two big 2024 campaign issues relating to Joe Biden’s job performance that are really hurting his prospects for reelection: the economy, and more specifically inflation; and the surge in migrants crossing the border during his presidency. Polls consistently show Biden getting low marks on handling inflation (34.8 percent approval according to the RealClearPolitics polling averages) and immigration (33.5 percent per RCP). Unfortunately for the president, these two concerns seem to be especially salient in 2024.

Gallup routinely asks Americans what they consider the “most important problem facing the country.” In its most recent report at the end of April, 30 percent said either “Economy in general” or “High Cost of Living/Inflation” were the single biggest problem, and another 27 percent named “Immigration.” This latter number has more than doubled since last fall. That’s not surprising given the drumbeat of news about high levels of border crossings by migrants since Biden took office, and incessant Republican complaints on the subject, particularly from Donald Trump, for whom immigration has long been his signature issue.

So the most recent statistics on border crossings, as reported by CBS News, represent some really good news for the 46th president:

“Illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border in May are down by more than 50% compared to the record highs reported in December, giving the Biden administration an unexpected reprieve during a time when migration has historically surged, according to internal government data obtained by CBS News. … May is also on track to see the third consecutive month-over-month drop in unlawful border crossings, the preliminary U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics show. In March and April, illegal crossings along the southern border dropped to 137,000 and 129,000, respectively, according to public government data. If the trend continues, Border Patrol is on pace to record between 110,000 and 120,000 apprehensions in May.”

Biden administration officials concede that a lot of this improvement is attributable to much tougher enforcement efforts by the Mexican government. But the drop in crossings is happening at the same time — coincidentally or not — that the administration is toughening its own rhetoric on illegal immigration, a trend that really began in February after congressional Republicans (reportedly at Trump’s insistence) rejected bipartisan border control legislation.

The major political question is whether this is happening too late to change perceptions of Biden’s job performance on immigration and migration, which Republicans tend to combine with complaints about (largely imaginary) spikes in crime into a law-and-order pitch that treats Democrats as weak and feckless, or perhaps even consciously lawless (that’s the heart of the “Great Replacement Theory” which no less a personage than House Speaker Mike Johnson has echoed, arguing that Biden plans to undocumented immigrants into illegal voters). After all, inflation has significantly abated in 2024, but voters don’t seem inclined to give Biden much credit for it, or even to tamp down their unhappiness with him over the high prices of food, housing and gasoline. It’s also possible that immigration has simply become an issue (much like abortion for Republicans) where Democrats have lost public trust and may not regain it for a good while. It hasn’t been that long since immigration policy divided Republicans and benefited Democrats, but those days seem to be gone for the immediate future.

Team Biden may not be able to hope for a big improvement in job performance assessments on immigration. But a reduction in its salience is feasible, making it an issue that decides voting preferences for a far smaller segment of the electorate. If border crossings continue to drop until election day, hyperbolic Republican claims that Biden has “opened the border” will begin to ring hollow, and Trump’s second-term plans to undertake a massive armed deportation drive will begin to sound as cruel as the former president himself.

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