Donald Trump’s latest contortions over immigration policy underscore one of his most daunting challenges: speaking to multiple audiences at once.
Presidential candidates often struggle to smooth sharp rhetoric as they move to moderate their image in a general election — Mitt Romney’s strategist famously likened the process to shaking a child’s Etch A Sketch.
But Trump, who won in a crowded primary by obliterating nearly every rhetorical boundary, seems to find the task exceedingly difficult.
His support among Latinos, blacks and other minority voters ranks well behind rival Hillary Clinton, and in some cases, among the lowest ever recorded in polls. Perhaps more important to Trump’s electoral strategy, accusations of racist rhetoric have stymied his ability to consolidate moderate Republicans and independents, especially suburban women.
Yet, moderating his message to appeal to those groups risks alienating many of Trump’s core supporters, who are drawn to his tough promises to deport immigrants here illegally and the belief that he says what he means.
“It’s a little late to say, ‘Oh, never mind,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advised Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during the primary. “He might conceivably make a little more progress with Republican-leaning voters who have been put off by his rhetoric, but you’ve got to balance that against the people who were attracted by him in the first place because of his pledge to deport 11 million illegal immigrants.”
Democrats and some Republican strategists have asserted that Trump may not really be trying to lure minority voters. He made one of his biggest appeals to African Americans to a nearly all-white audience in Wisconsin last week. And he has spoken about African American life in the U.S. in near-apocalyptic terms, overstating the degree of poverty, joblessness and violence among blacks.
Trump may be “trying to make affluent suburbanites feel like voting for him isn’t racist,” said Michael Steel, a former advisor to Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner and to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s primary campaign.
“It’s a difficult box for him because if he shifts to a more popular position, it undercuts his position as an outsider and truth-teller,” Steel said.
Trump often speaks extemporaneously, making it hard to pin him down on policy and easy to overstate the extent to which he is consciously shifting his words to court specific voter demographic targets.
During a Republican primary debate in November, Trump promised a deportation force, notably praising President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1950s-era program that removed more than 1 million people under the now-offensive name Operation Wetback. He reiterated his pledge to deport a day later, adding in a television interview that he would do it “humanely,” a phrase he has often used.
And in his initial television ad that began airing last week, Trump reinforces his emphasis on tough immigration enforcement, with a bleak depiction of young men sprawled atop freight train cars headed to Texas, above the caption “open border.”
But in a meeting with more than 20 Latino business executives, pastors and civic leaders at Trump Tower over the weekend, Trump “acknowledged the hard part is the 11 million” who are in the country illegally, according to Jacob Monty, a Texas-based immigration attorney who attended the meeting, speaking by telephone from Houston.
Trump did not indicate whether he would support alternatives to mass deportation, such as allowing people in the country illegally to begin the process of gaining legal status by going to their birth country’s consulate or embassy inside the U.S., one of several options discussed by Latino advisors around the table. In the past, Trump has said that such people would have to go home before returning to the U.S. legally.
His new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, wavered when asked a day later about the once-promised deportation force.
“To be determined,” she said, answering a question about the formation of such a force on CNN.
The campaign then announced it would postpone a speech scheduled for Thursday that would have outlined Trump’s plans more specifically.
Trump insisted his policy has not changed, yet two comments this week left him new wiggle room.
In a Fox News interview Monday, Trump suggested he might continue a more vigorous version of President Obama’s deportation policy.
Those who commit crimes, he said, are “going to be out of here so fast, your head will spin.”
“As far as the rest,” he added. “We’re going to go through the process, like they are now — perhaps with a lot more energy.”
Then in a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, he took it a step further, in response to a question from Fox’s Sean Hannity about people here illegally who “contribute to society, have been law-abiding, have kids here.”
“There could certainly be a softening, because we’re not looking to hurt people,” Trump responded.
Yet, even as Trump attempts to convey a softening on deportations, he continues to fire up supporters with tough talk about his central promise to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to build the wall,” Trump told a rally in Akron, Ohio, on Monday as the crowd urged him on with chants. “That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin. And you’ll say, ‘You know, he meant it.’”
Trump’s supporters say he has not veered from the broadest outlines of his immigration platform.
“He’s been consistent,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican known for his tough immigration stance. “He wants to secure the borders and keep America safe and protect American workers.”
Like Trump, Barletta is uncomfortable talking about what to do with the 11 million immigrants here illegally, insisting it’s a complicated question that cannot be answered before other issues are tackled.
“I don’t think he’s at the point where he needs to talk about what he’ll do after we secure the borders,” Barletta said. “Don’t get pigeonholed because the media wants an answer.”
Even if Trump changes around the edges, his reputation may already be cemented.
“There’s no doubt that deportations in particular, immigration in general, were one of the top three themes that you can attribute to the primary win,” said Al Cardenas, a Cuban-born lobbyist who previously chaired the Florida Republican Party and the American Conservative Union.
Cardenas, who backed Jeb Bush in the primary but has declined to make a general election endorsement, said the Republican convention marked Trump’s tone on immigration indelibly — with prominent chants in the audience to “build the wall,” and a prime-time speech by Joe Arpaio, the hard-line Arizona sheriff, with a wall as the backdrop.
He dismisses Trump’s overtures to blacks and Latinos, noting that just a handful of each have showed up at the events designed to court them.
“How do you meet with 17 [Latinos] 90 days before your election?” Cardenas said. “It’s better than nothing, but you question the impact that such a meeting would have on 50 million Hispanic Americans.”
Bierman reported from Washington and Finnegan from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.