Since the democratic convention, Donald Trump has been behind Hillary Clinton in the polls by about five points. He has a solid base of voters (about 40%). But, he must move about 6%–7% to win the popular vote and eke out the electoral.
Trump needs a strategy that allows him to roll back his negatives a bit. He also must win over a few of those who are voting for Clinton only because she isn’t Trump.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto gave Trump that chance. This was extraordinary, given what Trump has said about Mexico.
Peña Nieto invited Trump and Clinton to meet with him in Mexico. Clinton declined; she doesn’t have a Mexico problem. For Trump, though, it offered a chance to go into hostile territory, show self-control, and shift his stance a bit.
So why would Peña Nieto offer Trump this chance?
The president of Mexico took a calculated risk
Peña Nieto can’t run again. His favorability ratings are in the 20% range. An invitation to Trump would just create a collective rage attack in Mexico. Given all of this, why reach out to Trump? The answer might simply be statesmanship.
If Clinton wins, Mexico’s relations with the United States stay the same. If Trump wins, relations could turn disastrous. Mexico needs the US far more than the US needs Mexico. By reaching out to Trump, Peña Nieto might be able to soften Trump’s positions and create a personal relationship. (This would be based on the assumption that Trump isn’t actually committed to the things he says.)
This meeting had the potential to anger Clinton. But since she is locked into her position on Mexico, Peña Nieto determined it didn’t matter.
Trump’s talking points
The most important thing Trump said was that he wants to renegotiate NAFTA based on current conditions. This is the position the Mexican government has adopted.
Trump also tied the US immigration problem to Mexico’s immigration issue. Mexico has a problem with illegal immigrants from Central America. And Trump made sure to praise the contribution of legal Mexican immigrants in the United States.
Trump linked the issue of drugs coming into the US from Mexico and illegal guns moving from the US to Mexico. Private ownership of weapons is tightly controlled in Mexico. And Mexico has charged that its violence is due to the flow of illegal arms.
Trump also raised a new claim. Countries in the Western Hemisphere should face China together. He said that unfair competition from China hurts all countries in the hemisphere equally.
Trump stuck to his plan to build the wall between the US and Mexico. But he put off the question of who would pay for it.
Here’s what Trump gained from this meeting
It was a clever speech. Trump didn’t abandon any positions. He reshaped them. He said little that would cost him any of his base. He may have even changed the small percentage of minds he needs to get into the race.
Trump showed he could be in control of his emotions for this meeting. He made (or read) a coherent speech, displaying his grasp of the issues. He even showed some subtlety.
Most people with negative views of him would not be swayed regardless of what he said or did. But the voters he was after are those who hate Clinton and plan to vote for her only because Trump seems unacceptable. For those looking for an excuse not to vote for Clinton, he did the best he could.
We won’t know if he swayed these voters until the polls metabolize this meeting and his speech on immigration. The numbers may not move, since most people are locked into their position.
Regardless, it was a beautiful example of a zero-risk, high-reward move. If Trump ever had a chance to pull even, this was it. It may be too little, too late, but he didn’t fumble it.
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