Does Trump’s Indictment Change Anything?

Last week, the Department of Justice indicted former President Donald Trump on 37 counts relating to his illegal retention of classified documents. Despite the possibility of conviction and his unpopularity among the general electorate, Trump remains the favorite to win the Republican nomination, and polls suggest that his latest scandal hasn’t impacted his standing with GOP primary voters.

Will he stay the frontrunner as the trial picks up steam? And if he wins the nomination, how would a conviction impact the general election picture?

The Primary

The first question to answer is whether this hurts Trump’s standing in the 2024 Republican Presidential primary nomination process. The surface-level data suggests it hasn’t, at least up until now. Trump’s indictment was announced on June 8, when he was polling at 53.8% in the FiveThirtyEight averages. A week later, this number is virtually unchanged, at 53.4%. If the indictment hurt him with Republican primary voters, it certainly hasn’t shown up in the head-to-head polling.

Unlike the public at large, which views Trump’s retention of classified documents with extreme skepticism and distaste, Republicans are overwhelmingly likely to dismiss the scandal as a political hit job. A YouGov/CBS News poll found that only 38% of Republican primary voters saw the scandal as a national security risk, compared to 80% of the rest of the country. And in the same poll, 75% of Republican voters said that this indictment either improved or had no impact on their view of the former President, while only 7% said it diminished his standing in their eyes.

This lines up with what a YouGov/The Economist poll found, in which only 17% of Republican voters thought it was fair that Trump was indicted over his handling of classified documents. It also matches a Civiqs finding, where only 8% of Republicans believed that Trump was guilty of crimes he should go to jail for.

These numbers broadly suggest that Republicans are not likely to be swayed by the indictment or the narrative around it. More concerningly for Trump’s opponents, there is no obvious lane opened up just yet by this news — when Republican voters see this as a politically motivated indictment, it becomes much more difficult for any opponents to actually attack him on it, because voters simply do not believe the charges have merit.

This is likely why most Republican candidates have shied away from directly targeting the former President much regarding the indictment; in fact, the only Republican to attack Trump on this news has been former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Republican voters still overwhelmingly like Trump, and while GOP talking-head elites like Bill Barr and Jonathan Turley might publicly acknowledge the seriousness of the charges, there is little evidence to suggest that voters view it similarly.

Of course, it is possible for things to change. If more damaging information comes out regarding the former President’s actions, it could provide more of an opening for other primary hopefuls to go after him. Alternatively, with possibly the most serious set of charges yet to come in Georgia, the sheer volume of negative news surrounding him may chip away at his Teflon image with Republican primary voters. It could be argued that something similar was observed immediately after the GOP’s underwhelming midterm performance, which allowed DeSantis to actually lead Trump in head-to-head polling for a brief moment.

But an overwhelming majority of data that we’ve seen over the last several years suggests that this is not going to be the case. Opinions on Donald Trump are baked in among partisans on both sides, and the persuadable middle does not form a sizable bloc in Republican primaries. Barring criminal conviction, it appears as if he is overwhelmingly likely to be the nominee once again.

The General Election

On the surface, the scandal doesn’t appear to have had an impact on the general election — or, at least, it hasn’t shown up in head-to-head polling just yet. Recent polls continue to show a dead heat between Biden and Trump, with significant swaths of undecided voters, and many of the other signs still point to a close election overall. President Joe Biden is facing real and serious concerns over his age from many voters, and his approval rate sits at a dismal 41 percent, which has resulted in close polling up to this point.

Worryingly for Republicans, however, Trump may not be poised to capitalize on this weakness, because the legal quagmire he finds himself in may have a greater impact among persuadable voters than Biden’s age does. A look under the hood suggests some worrisome signs for the former President, especially with independents.

While most Republican primary voters felt the investigation was politically motivated, the same cannot be said of the general public’s view on the scandal. A YouGov/The Economist poll found that Democrats approved of Trump’s indictment by an 85-10 spread, while independents approved of it with a 53-31 spread. This is in line with what an ABC News/Ipsos poll found as well, and the overall picture is clear: most voters outside the GOP perceive these charges as serious, credible, and necessary.

A recent Suffolk poll found that 52% of independents were less inclined to support Trump due to his indictments, while only 39% said it made no difference. Meanwhile, although 46% of Independents in the same poll suggested Biden’s advanced age made them less likely to support him, 52% said it made no difference. The angles for Republicans to attack Biden on become significantly less potent when they are forced to play defense against their own nominee’s even larger weaknesses, but if they nominate Donald Trump, the data suggests that they may back themselves into exactly this corner.

This might not be the end of Trump’s legal issues either; the general election impact of an indictment and conviction for Trump’s role in the January 6th insurrection could be greater. While Americans are heavily divided on the significance of January 6th as a threat to democracy, 64% of respondents believed that the former president bears some degree of responsibility for the insurrection. When compared to the mere 52% of respondents who approved of Trump’s latest indictment, there’s a strong case to be made that the former President’s alleged involvement in the attacks on the Capitol could resonate more with swing voters, including soft Republicans.

The 2016 election offers good historical evidence that scandals can have a significant impact on candidates’ positions in the polls. Hillary Clinton’s email controversy alone obviously did not cost her the presidential race, but it did play an important role in potentially causing her to be seen as untrustworthy, and by extension, unfit for office by many voters. If the same logic holds in 2024, a convicted Trump could pay an even bigger electoral penalty as undecided voters consolidate their support.

Still, the conflicting signs at play give us reason to be cautious here and avoid jumping to conclusions. While historical polling evidence suggests that presidential candidates pay electoral penalties for scandals, there’s also room to doubt just how impactful a Trump conviction would actually be. After all, the former president is no stranger to scandals.

In 2016, for example, the Access Hollywood Tape revealed Trump making crass and demeaning comments about sexually assaulting women, leading many top Republicans to un-endorse him. However, he still went on to win the general election, lending strength to his “Teflon Don” image, even as he lost the popular vote. With polarization only increasing since 2016, there is a significant chance that the electoral impact of any possible conviction could be similarly muted.

Ultimately, there are a lot of openings Republicans have (and may continue to have) against Joe Biden, who happens to be a fairly unpopular president with large concerns from voters of all stripes regarding his age. But the evidence we’re seeing currently suggests that Trump is not the nominee who can best take advantage of this. Between the January 6th insurrection and his legal troubles, he has taken significant hits in favorability and popularity since his narrow defeat in 2020, and focus groups suggest that many Biden voters who disapprove of both Biden and Trump are not inclined to switch their vote in a rematch.

Maybe that changes. But for now, it’s difficult to look at Trump’s indictment and conclude that this is good news for Republicans.

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