A little over a week ago, the Justice Department indicted the Republican front-runner for mishandling America’s atomic secrets (among other things). The DOJ revealed that Donald Trump had shown highly classified military secrets to personal confidants, while indicating — in taped remarks — that he knew he shouldn’t have been doing so. The government also unveiled evidence that Trump had asked both his lawyer and his valet to obstruct the National Archives’ attempts to recover the documents he had illegally retained.
In a saner political universe, such strong indications of wanton criminality would be fatal to a presidential campaign. In the decidedly irrational realm of contemporary American politics, however, Trump 2024 is alive and kicking.
More precisely, there is reason to think that Trump’s federal indictment has rendered him a weaker general-election candidate without making him an uncompetitive one. At the same time, it has done little to erode his standing with the GOP base. This is a suboptimal state of affairs for the Republican Party.
As Ed Kilgore notes, the first public polls taken (at least, partly) after Trump’s federal indictment show his commanding lead in the GOP primary largely unperturbed. A Reuters-Ipsos survey does show the ex-president’s support among Republican primary voters declining by six points, relative to his standing in the same poll circa early May. But this still leaves Trump with a 21-point lead over Ron DeSantis, his closest competitor. Meanwhile, two other surveys actually showed Trump gaining support in the indictment’s wake, while another showed his massive lead over Florida’s governor holding steady. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump retains a nearly 33-point advantage over DeSantis.
Meanwhile, the indictment has had no discernible impact on Trump’s standings in head-to-head polls with Joe Biden. The most recent Quinnipiac survey does show Biden’s advantage over Trump growing from two points before the indictment to four points afterward. A survey from the Economist-YouGov, however, shows Trump actually erasing Biden’s three-point pre-indictment lead and now running even with the president.
But at this point in a presidential cycle, hypothetical general-election polls tend to have little predictive power. And there’s good reason to believe that the common-sense hypothesis “presidential candidates do not benefit from being prosecuted for jeopardizing national security” will eventually be born out.
For one thing, in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Donald Trump’s net-favorability rating has fallen by more than three points since his federal indictment became public. For another, as the New York Times’ David Leonhardt notes, polling on the case against Trump suggests that it functions as a wedge issue, uniting the vast majority of Democrats with a plurality of independents and a sizable minority of Republicans. In an ABC News–Ipsos poll, 16 percent of GOP voters say that Trump should be charged with a crime for his actions. By contrast, only 5 percent of Democrats disagree with their party’s dominant position on the question and maintain that Trump shouldn’t be charged.
Needless to say, Trump can afford to dispense with the confidence of 16 percent of the GOP electorate. But the fact that a sizable minority of Republican voters are open to the possibility that Donald Trump is a criminal suggests that ongoing news stories fortifying that impression could damage his standing in a general election. After all, even a tiny defection of GOP voters to Biden would complicate Trump’s electoral math considerably. And the ex-president’s legal problems are liable to get worse from here, as a special counsel’s investigation into his actions on January 6 and a Georgia probe of his attempts to interfere with that state’s 2020 election remain ongoing.
Nevertheless, to the extent that this month’s indictment has damaged Trump politically, it has done so in a modest and as-yet-inconspicuous way. Republican presidential candidates interested in mounting an “electability” argument against Trump have little ammunition. In RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump currently leads Biden by more than two points, while Ron DeSantis leads the Democratic president by just one. Even if one posits that Quinnipiac’s poll is correct, and Biden currently leads Trump by four points nationally, it’s possible that Trump would still be poised to win the White House in 2024. After all, in 2020, Biden won the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points, yet Trump came within 44,000 well-placed votes of assembling an Electoral College majority. In my view, the case that Trump would make an exceptionally weak general-election candidate, owing to his extraordinarily high unpopularity and mounting legal troubles, is strong. But the case for believing that an exceptionally weak Republican candidate can’t defeat Biden in 2024 is weak. Given Biden’s low rating, and the large pro-GOP bias of the Electoral College in recent elections, there is little reason to think that nominating Trump would necessarily cost Republicans the White House.
So for Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and their fellow 2024 hopefuls, selling the argument “Trump is great, of course, but he just can’t win” to GOP primary voters hasn’t gotten easier since the Justice Department exposed Trump’s odd taste in bathroom reading material. Making the case against Trump on the merits, meanwhile, seems at least as perilous as it did a month ago. Although a significant minority of Republicans recognize the seriousness of the charges against Trump, the vast majority believe that their party’s standard-bearer is a victim of political persecution. As an adviser to one of Trump’s primary rivals told the New York Times last week, “I think the reality is there’s such enormous distrust of the Department of Justice and the FBI after the Hillary years and the Russiagate investigation that it appears that no other fact set will persuade Republican voters otherwise right now.”
This reality doesn’t just make it harder for DeSantis & Co. to criticize Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. It also threatens to render Republican primary voters even less sympathetic to criticisms of Trump more generally. To attack a much-loved party leader is risky in any context; to do so at a time when such attacks align one with a (supposed) deep-state plot to destroy that leader for daring to fight for Real Americans™ is even more perilous.
And yet it is also indispensable. The durability of Trump’s polling advantage in recent months makes it clear that nothing — not a federal indictment or a court finding Trump liable for sexual assault — is likely to defeat Trump for his GOP adversaries. The Republican front-runner can very likely delay any hypothetical conviction until long after the primary is settled. And if Trump is not in prison or dead, then the path of least resistance will lead to his renomination. So as risky as attacking Trump is, the GOP field will inevitably try its hands at it.
This, in turn, will lead a number of high-profile conservative voices to validate the seriousness and legitimacy of the legal charges facing Trump. To a degree, this has already happened with Fox News legal analysts Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Turley, along with former attorney general Bill Barr, acknowledging the strength of the DOJ’s case against Trump. At this point, it looks unlikely that a growing chorus of such voices will be sufficient to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. But such a chorus would likely serve to erode Trump’s standing with the broader electorate. If a vocal minority of conservative commentators and politicians join with the mainstream media in portraying Trump’s rapidly multiplying legal problems as a reflection of his own extraordinarily corrupt behavior (rather than a product of some deep-state conspiracy against the MAGA movement), then he is likely to emerge an even weaker general-election candidate than he is today, when his unfavorable rating sits around 56 percent.
Again, this would not mean that Trump’s nomination would ensure Biden’s reelection. But it would mean that, for the third election cycle in a row, the Republican Party would be saddled with a standard-bearer far less congenial to the typical voter than most any Republican senator or governor.
In other words, from the GOP’s point of view, Trump’s federal indictment looks like it will do an “anti-Goldilocks” level of damage: enough to significantly damage his strength in a general election but not enough to dent his momentum toward the nomination.