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Very few known unknowns have ever been so unknown, or as high-stakes, as the effect Donald Trump’s criminal trials will have on the 2024 presidential race.

For one, there are many different ways Trump’s legal cases could play out. His New York trial for falsifying records related to a hush money payment is set to start on March 25, but many observers think that case is the weakest of the cases against him. He’s asked the Supreme Court to declare him immune from prosecution in any matter that concerns his activities while president, which could get him off the hook from 2020-related cases in both Washington and Georgia. And he could benefit from the rulings of a friendly judge in his Florida classified documents case.

Or, if various rulings and appeals don’t go his way and juries reject his attorneys’ arguments at trial, he could be found guilty and even sentenced to prison—hey, the Resistance can dream—in more than one of those cases before the election. And pollsters have tried to figure out how that would affect the election by asking voters what they would do, hypothetically, if Trump were convicted.

What these polls have found is that some Americans who say they currently support Trump’s candidacy claim they would no longer do so if he were found guilty of a crime. In a December New York Times/Siena College survey, a quarter of respondents who said that they currently support Trump also said they believed a conviction should disqualify him from being the Republican nominee. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in February found Biden leading Trump 48–47—a margin that, according to the poll’s respondents, would increase to 51–45 if Trump were found guilty. NBC News, which asked similar questions, had the race switching from 47–42 in Trump’s favor to 45–43 in Biden’s in the event of a conviction. And a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult survey of swing-state voters found that 53 percent of them said a Trump conviction should disqualify him from office, a number that would make it impossible for him to beat Biden without a strong “spoiler” showing by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or another independent candidate.

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This ought to make Democrats feel pretty good. At least one Trump trial is set to go forward before November, and he doesn’t have a great recent history of success in court; he managed to basically lose E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against him twice. And according to voters, if he loses a criminal trial, that could hand the election to Biden.

On the other hand, what if these voters are full of it? For years, the people of the United States have often told pollsters that they think Donald Trump has done terrible things, only to end up voting for him anyway. In 2019, 64 percent of respondents told Pew they thought Trump had “definitely” or “probably” broken the law when he was in office or while he was running for president. The next year he got 47 percent of the national vote, which, if you do the math, would imply that somewhere around 10 percent of Americans voted for someone who they thought was “definitely” or “probably” a criminal. According to CNN, 50 percent of Republican voters currently believe Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election was either unethical or illegal; at the same time, polls routinely find that more than 70 percent of them believe he should be the party’s nominee. Do a key slice of prospective 2024 voters feel compelled, for some reason, to say they will withhold their support from Trump in the event of a conviction even though they won’t actually do any such thing?

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The question is related to something called the “Shy Trump hypothesis.” In 2016, after Trump overperformed his polling to register a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, there was speculation that supporting him had been considered so socially unacceptable that many people who planned to vote for him all along had refused to admit it during conversations with pollsters. Ultimately, though, an American Association for Public Opinion Research panel, which sifted through hundreds of polls’ worth of data after the election, determined that there was no evidence that such “shy” Trump supporters existed. Among other things, online polls—which don’t require respondents to speak to another human—had underestimated Trump by even more than telephone polls in which respondents spoke with a pollster. People had done what they said they’d do regarding their votes for Trump, and hadn’t been ashamed to admit it.

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Some of the polling experts who worked on that 2016 postmortem are nonetheless wondering if it’s really true that a conviction will reduce Trump’s support by the margin that polls say. “I don’t love hypotheticals like ‘If he was convicted would you vote for him?’ ” says Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll. “Asking people to predict their behavior in a circumstance that may not happen, or that they don’t believe will happen, is likely to overstate the impact.”

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YouGov’s Mark Blumenthal, who was also on the post-2016 panel, addressed the subject in a mid-February post. Like Franklin, Blumenthal alludes to evidence in academic literature that people overstate how they’d react in hypothetical situations. He also dug up polling data related to the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, which has some parallels with a potential Trump conviction.

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Shortly before the House voted on whether to impeach Clinton on charges that he’d lied during lawsuit testimony about his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, CBS asked voters if they thought he should resign because of the scandal. They also asked voters to think about whether he should resign if the House impeached him. The results: About 70 percent of people said Clinton shouldn’t resign, and 30 percent said he should. But some of the people who said he shouldn’t resign—just over 10 percent of the total number who were surveyed—said that he should resign if ultimately impeached.

What makes the data useful is that the House did impeach Clinton, so CBS’s pollsters got to see whether it was, in fact, true that impeachment raised the percentage of voters who thought he should resign. It turns out that number didn’t go up post-impeachment, staying right around 30 percent. Voters who’d said impeachment would change their minds had been wrong.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean the same is true of Trump. Clinton was the sitting president at the time, and voters largely approved of his performance in office. Trump, since leaving the White House, may have faded from some voters’ minds; he was also much less popular than Clinton during his presidency. The criminal charges against Trump are also arguably more serious than the allegation that Clinton had lied in testimony related to a civil lawsuit, and a verdict against Trump would be rendered by a jury rather than a partisan group of legislators. (Then again, the first potential conviction Trump faces is related to covering up an alleged affair.)

In a recent survey of his own, Marquette’s Franklin says he did find some crumbs of evidence suggesting that Trump could, for real, lose support if convicted. In a national poll of adults released in September 2023, Marquette asked respondents whether they supported Trump or Biden—then, later in the survey, asked whether they thought Trump behaved illegally in his effort to reverse the results of the 2020 election. The results: Forty-three percent of Republicans who thought Trump acted illegally had, earlier in the survey, said they supported Biden. Almost no Republicans who described Trump’s actions as “wrong but not illegal” or “not wrong at all,” by comparison, had said they supported Biden. This, Franklin argues, is evidence that believing Trump did something illegal can change the preferences of voters who would otherwise be expected to support him. (Independent voters showed similar tendencies.)

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Of course, Marquette’s poll identified potential voters who already believe Trump behaved illegally. For him to actually lose support, a conviction would have to convince additional Americans that he engaged in illegal acts. But in Blumenthal’s YouGov post there’s evidence that this, too, could happen. Of respondents in YouGov polling who said that a Trump conviction would change their minds about voting for him, Blumenthal writes, only 31 percent say that they “follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time.”

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Most of them, in other words, aren’t paying close attention to the news. Perhaps voters who would currently support Trump, but aren’t really giving the election much thought, would be more likely to switch sides if a conviction were to remind them what they don’t like about him. Of potential relevance to this possibility is a 2022 study by political scientists David Broockman of Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale which found that the less voters knew about a candidate, the more likely they were to change their minds about whether to vote for them in response to new information. (“Voters know a lot about both Trump and Biden already, so persuasion will be difficult,” Broockman cautioned over email. “On the other hand, many circumstances of the election are unprecedented, so it’s possible voters might respond. It’s rare to have a defeated presidential candidate run again four years later.”)

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A Trump conviction could also raise meta-concerns about his electability. The Republican Accountability Project, a group founded by GOP strategist Sarah Longwell, conducts focus groups of Trump voters with an eye toward figuring out how they might be persuaded not to pull the lever for him again. In a session last November, the group told Slate, a participant from Pennsylvania named Andy F. said he’d want a different nominee if Trump were found guilty in his Georgia trial—but not because it would call his fitness into question. “If he gets convicted in Georgia, then it’s pointless voting for him,” the participant said.

Then again, Andy F. told the session’s moderators that his preferred candidate in that case would be Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s since dropped out, as has every other non-Trump candidate except Nikki Haley—who, by virtue of believing that there should be a Republican alternative to Trump, would likely not be considered a good alternative to Trump by many Republican voters. As we said, it’s a known unknown.

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The Biggest Unknown of the Presidential Election

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22.02.2024
Tweet Share Share Comment

Very few known unknowns have ever been so unknown, or as high-stakes, as the effect Donald Trump’s criminal trials will have on the 2024 presidential race.

For one, there are many different ways Trump’s legal cases could play out. His New York trial for falsifying records related to a hush money payment is set to start on March 25, but many observers think that case is the weakest of the cases against him. He’s asked the Supreme Court to declare him immune from prosecution in any matter that concerns his activities while president, which could get him off the hook from 2020-related cases in both Washington and Georgia. And he could benefit from the rulings of a friendly judge in his Florida classified documents case.

Or, if various rulings and appeals don’t go his way and juries reject his attorneys’ arguments at trial, he could be found guilty and even sentenced to prison—hey, the Resistance can dream—in more than one of those cases before the election. And pollsters have tried to figure out how that would affect the election by asking voters what they would do, hypothetically, if Trump were convicted.

What these polls have found is that some Americans who say they currently support Trump’s candidacy claim they would no longer do so if he were found guilty of a crime. In a December New York Times/Siena College survey, a quarter of respondents who said that they currently support Trump also said they believed a conviction should disqualify him from being the Republican nominee. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released in February found Biden leading Trump 48–47—a margin that, according to the poll’s respondents, would increase to 51–45 if Trump were found guilty. NBC News, which asked similar questions, had the race switching from 47–42 in Trump’s favor to 45–43 in Biden’s in the event of a conviction. And a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult survey of swing-state voters found that 53 percent of them said a Trump conviction should disqualify him from office, a number that would make it impossible for him to beat Biden without a strong “spoiler” showing by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or another independent candidate.

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This ought to make Democrats feel pretty good. At least one Trump trial is set to go forward before November, and he doesn’t have a great recent history of success in court; he managed to basically lose E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against him twice. And according to voters, if he loses a criminal trial, that could hand the election to Biden.

On the other hand, what if these voters are full of it? For years, the people of the United States have often told pollsters that they think Donald Trump has done terrible things, only to end up........

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