Many of my colleagues find the current political debate over immigration laughable. They tell me that politicians falling over themselves to echo the rantings of an ignorant clown are only destroying their own chances to become president in 2016.
I have to dissent from this view. More than most subjects, immigration is one that deception can be effective. This is because unlike taxes or unemployment, most voters actually have very little experience with immigration themselves. Voters know if the price of gas is going up, but they don’t know if the number of undocumented immigrants is increasing.
Polling tells us that most Americans have an exaggerated idea of how many undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. In fact, many people think there are about five times as many undocumented immigrants as there actually are.
When asked if they know any immigrants, Americans often respond that either don’t know any, or that they know only one or two, yet in the same studies many say that we are “being overwhelmed” by immigrants.
This lack of a personal connection to immigration or of any real knowledge of the facts of immigration makes voters susceptible to the manipulation of politicians in ways they would not be regarding most other issues.
I do not think that all Americans are subject to the manipulations of demagogues, but presidential nominations are decided by primaries that typically turn out 20% of the total electorate.