Conway made an effort to get her poll noticed, but it surfaced in the media only in an article in Breitbart (which hailed it as a “blockbuster”) and a Politico Pro article available only to paid subscribers. She personally handed a copy to Ted Cruz, and discussed it on a panel at the Heritage Foundation. At a private meeting of big GOP donors in Chicago, she urged adoption of the anti-immigration message. But the donors didn’t want to hear it, as Conway later told The New York Times: “They wanted labor and they wanted votes.”
Interestingly, while it was Conway who first told me about her 2014 poll, she was cagey about who had sponsored it. Her own company’s name was on the polling memo, and when I asked her who paid for it, she said it was “Creative Response Concepts”—the full name of a prominent conservative public-relations firm better known in D.C. by its acronym, CRC. But who was paying CRC? I called NumbersUSA, a CRC client, and got the answer: “That’s our poll,” the group’s executive director, Roy Beck, said proudly.
NumbersUSA advocates dramatically reducing legal immigration levels and cracking down on undocumented immigrants’ employment. Its positions are diametrically opposed to those of FWD.us. That Conway took a paycheck from both groups within months of each other was surprising—like advising Planned Parenthood one day and National Right to Life the next.
When I asked Conway about the apparent contradiction, she said she had participated in the FWD.us group in an effort to “improve on the questions being asked and the assumptions being made.” It was the NumbersUSA poll, she said, that better reflected her views: “The second effort was a much more comprehensive body of qualitative and quantitative work.”
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One person who noticed Conway’s August 2014 poll was Bannon, who at the time was the CEO of Breitbart. Bannon had also been pondering another counterargument to the “autopsy” theory: the work of Sean Trende, a respected elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, who had dived into the 2012 numbers and come up with a different conclusion than the RNC’s.
White working-class voters, Trende found, had stayed home in large numbers in 2012—particularly “downscale, Northern, rural whites,” who likely saw no appealing option between the “urban liberal” Barack Obama and the “severely pro-business venture capitalist” Romney. Immigration reform might be good policy, he wrote, but there was a path to victory for Republicans that didn’t require more Hispanic votes: they could instead find a way to bring back the “missing white voters.”
Trende’s theory was descriptive, not prescriptive. But when Bannon put it together with Conway’s research, it suggested a political formula: a presidential campaign targeting working-class whites, with a message spotlighting opposition to immigration. Bannon framed it as remaking the GOP into the party of the American worker, the “forgotten man”; less sympathetic observers have termed it white identity politics. (Trende, for his part, told me he never envisioned his theory being used in this way.)