Trump Won’t Win a Shutdown Over the Border Wall

The polls are a warning.

U.S. Border Patrol officers stand guard beside the border wall in Imperial Beach, California on Nov. 15.
U.S. Border Patrol officers stand guard beside the border wall in Imperial Beach, California on Nov. 15. Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

President Trump thinks he’ll win a fight with Democrats over paying for a wall on the Mexican border. “If we don’t get what we want … I will shut down the government,” Trump told Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker–designate Nancy Pelosi in a televised Oval Office meeting on Tuesday. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country.”

When Trump talks about “the people of this country,” he’s saying that he’ll win because polls are on his side. He’s also confident because nearly a year ago, Democrats caved under fire after a three-day shutdown over DACA, a program that protected undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as kids. “The last time you shut [the government] down, you got killed,” Trump told Schumer and Pelosi in Tuesday’s meeting. But Trump is misreading history and the polls. If he ends up in a shutdown over a wall, he’ll lose.

Trump lives in a partisan bubble. In the White House, he surrounds himself with sycophants. In Congress, he works only with Republicans. When he goes out, he speaks at rallies full of worshipful followers. When he watches TV, it’s Fox News. So when he sees polls, he focuses on his base. By that measure, building a wall looks like a winner. In surveys taken during last winter’s shutdown fight, the percentage of Republicans who supported a wall ranged from 65 to 75. This summer, it was even higher, between 73 and 87 percent.

But step outside the Republican bubble, and you soon discover that enthusiasm for the wall is shaky even among Trump’s strongest constituencies. Consider whites without a college degree, two-thirds of whom voted for Trump in 2016. In a CNN poll taken in January, non-college whites opposed a wall, 51 percent to 46 percent. In Quinnipiac surveys, non-college whites support a wall, but just barely, with majorities in the low 50s. When they’re told that the cost is $25 billion, they oppose it by a narrow plurality.

Venture further from the bubble, and the numbers get worse. A year ago, Public Policy Polling found that 65 percent of Republicans supported building a wall if “taxpayers have to pay” for it. (Trump originally promised that Mexico would pay for it.) But whites as a whole rejected a wall on those terms, 51 percent to 42 percent. In the CNN poll, whites opposed a wall, 57 percent to 41 percent. In a CBS/YouGov poll taken in June, 63 percent of Republicans said a wall was “a good idea that can probably be completed.” Only 37 percent of whites agreed. In Quinnipiac surveys, most whites opposed building a wall.

Trump’s second mistake is that he thinks Democrats will lose a shutdown fight over a wall because they lost the shutdown fight over DACA. He doesn’t understand that the current fight is different in two ways. This time, Trump is the one making demands. And popular support for a wall is much weaker than popular support for DACA. In every survey that has asked about both issues—CBS, CNN, Gallup, Quinnipiac, and the Washington Post—only about 35 to 40 percent of Americans have supported a wall, while more than 80 percent have supported “allowing young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country if they meet certain requirements.”

These two gaps—between DACA and a wall, and between Republicans and the rest of the country—show up vividly in surveys that ask specifically about shutting down the government. If you focus on Republicans, as Trump does, a shutdown over a wall looks winnable. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in January, Republicans said by a 4-point margin that a wall was worth a shutdown. When Politico repeated the question last month, the margin among Republicans was 15 points. In a PBS/NPR/Marist survey that ended last week (the survey dates were Nov. 28 to Dec. 4), 65 percent of Republicans said Trump “should not compromise on the border wall even if it means a government shutdown.” Only 29 percent said Trump “should compromise on the border wall to prevent gridlock.”

But outside the bubble, a shutdown over a wall is deeply unpopular, even among whites. In the January Politico poll, whites said by a 2–1 ratio, 60 percent to 28 percent, that funding a wall wasn’t worth a shutdown. In the November Politico poll, whites expressed the same view, 54 percent to 32 percent. In the Marist survey, 55 percent of whites said Trump should compromise on the wall to avoid a shutdown; only 39 percent said he should stand his ground. Even among supporters of a wall, the January CBS poll found that a plurality, 50 percent to 44 percent, said it wasn’t “worth risking a shutdown.”

Politically, a shutdown over a wall would be far more disastrous than a shutdown over DACA. In the January Politico survey, voters were evenly split on whether legislation to protect “young people who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children” was “important enough to prompt a government shutdown.” But on a wall, they were clear: 59 percent said a wall wasn’t worth a shutdown; only 27 percent said it was. When Politico repeated those questions last month, it got almost the same results.

Trump has lied about the wall all along, and the bill for his lies is coming due. He said Mexico would pay for it, but Mexico refused. Then he demanded that Congress pay for it on his terms, but Congress refused. If the wall gets funded, you know who will end up paying for it: you. But if it doesn’t, and if we end up in a shutdown, I’ll tell you who will pay politically: Donald Trump.