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May 30, 2024, 10:23pm EDT
politicsNorth America

The subtle reason why Donald Trump’s conviction might matter to voters

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The News

Donald Trump is a convicted felon.

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Benjy’s view

When it comes to predicting the political fallout from any Trump crisis, I will defer to Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.”

The safe bet is usually to assume voters have relatively fixed opinions on Trump and that any story that normally would destroy another politician has little impact. That feels like a cop out, though: It’s not every day a former president is convicted of nearly three-dozen felonies, and there’s reason to ask whether this might be different.

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Let’s start with one data point that I’m not too impressed with: Polling around the conviction. The numbers aren’t consistent, but there are at least some surveys showing a small but significant percentage of committed Trump voters would withdraw their support if he were found guilty of a felony. Hypotheticals are tough to poll in general, and whether conscious or not, partisans are very likely to “come home” after a scandal — if they leave in the first place — just as they did after the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. Even less useful: Polls that ask voters whether they are “more likely” or “less likely” to vote based on an issue, which rarely say much about the overall state of the race.

A better reason to think there might be a real shift are the people who haven’t been paying close attention to the trial, or who have only a vague sense of Trump’s “legal problems” as an issue, or who assumed that Trump would easily survive his various charges.

These low-engagement voters look like the main characters in this election and the news could be a shock to the system that plays out in unpredictable ways — especially when his sentencing is set to take place on July 11, just days before the Republican National Convention, providing another high-drama moment just as they might be starting to tune in even more to the race.

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As Democratic pollster Will Jordan noted after the verdict, a survey this month from Navigator Research found only 36% of voters and just 30% of independents believed Trump would ever be convicted of any crime, let alone the Manhattan trial. And despite widespread cable coverage, a CBS/YouGov poll found only 39% of independents had heard a lot about the case. In both polls, those numbers were notably far below the majorities who thought Trump was likely guilty of a crime.

“I think one thing we see with disengaged voters is a sense of ‘Oh, if it’s really so bad why hasn’t he been convicted of anything?’” Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the liberal grassroots group Indivisible, told Semafor. “Well, now he has been convicted of something.”

In theory, piercing that “Teflon Don” image could feed into a variety of concerns beyond the underlying charges. In 2016, the idea that Hillary Clinton might be hampered by legal issues as president — and not just the substance of the legal issues themselves — was considered a drag with swing voters, especially when James Comey reopened the FBI investigation right before the election. Seeing Trump convicted and sentenced (even if jail is unlikely this time), could affirm that the long queue of pending trials over more severe allegations are worth taking seriously.

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“It won’t be a public opinion earthquake,” Sarah Longwell, a Trump critic on the right known for her focus groups with swing voters, said on X. “But in an election where inches will matter, this just created a new barrier for undecided swing voters: voting for a convicted felon.

It may take time for this to play out. Low-information voters take the longest time to get and process new facts, but several polling experts also warned that the initial surveys after the verdict could also be distorted. Partisans will be fired up and that could lead to differential response rates in polls: Trump haters might be eager to pick up that phone and answer questions about a conviction; Trump fans might be annoyed and hang up or they might be even likelier to pick up the phone to vent.

Public opinion doesn’t form in a vacuum, though, and one of the biggest question marks going forward is how much Democrats decide to center Trump’s conviction and potential future legal peril in their campaign messaging.

Whether out of political calculation, a sense of duty, or learned helpness, the Biden campaign has typically ignored Trump’s legal problems in favor of issues like abortion, health care, and democracy writ large. Their response on Thursday was more direct, but still relatively muted. It’s not clear that will change going forward —the party is still split on the relative upside of raising on this issue. One Democratic strategist told Semafor a recent focus group of female swing voters had found a Trump conviction might help them decide on Biden as the “lesser of two evils” and they suggested outside groups might eventually start running advertising on that basis.

Meanwhile, Republicans are far louder in accusing the entire justice system of corruptly persecuting Trump, a theme the newly convicted nominee pounds on a daily basis.

There are risks to these approaches: Polls show voters still suspect Trump’s guilt despite his martyrdom claims; the same polls still show Biden losing to Trump despite focusing on infrastructure over indictments. Swing voters will be hearing more from both sides as the election nears, and the bets they’re each placing on their response will matter in shaping their views.

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  • For more on the Trump verdict, check out Semafor Signals, which is gathering reactions and insight in response to this breaking story.
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