Trump’s Indictments Might Be Hurting Him — Just Not In The Primary Polls

During the 2016 election, Donald Trump earned the nickname “Teflon Don” for his uncanny ability to avoid any consequences for the various scandals he faced. This year, after prosecutors have filed four separate indictments against him for alleged state and federal crimes (the most recent one, from prosecutors in the state of Georgia, coming just last night) it is still conventional wisdom among political analysts that such scandals don’t hurt him — and are even actively helping him.

But two weeks after Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, polling data suggests he has been unable to convince voters that his latest boogeyman — the United States Department of Justice — is really out to get him. Instead, polls show that while it may not be putting a serious dent in his lead in the Republican primary, voters overall view his latest indictment as serious and believe that Trump’s actions related to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, merit criminal charges. And among both adults and Republicans, Trump’s favorability rating fell after he was indicted in June for illegally retaining classified documents and refusing to return them to the U.S. officials when asked.

Trump has a record-high lead in GOP primary polls

Let’s start with the positive case for “Teflon Don.” His rosiest news comes in the form of polls of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. According to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average of the primary, Trump has a near record-high advantage of 38.7 percentage points over his nearest competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That’s up from a lead of 15 to 20 points in late March, prior to his indictment in New York state for allegedly falsifying business records in order to pay hush money to an adult film actress in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Though DeSantis had begun a gentle slide in the polls from January to early March, the trend shifted markedly after the indictment.

After that, not much changed. From June 8, the day the classified documents indictment was unsealed, to July 8, Trump’s lead in the horse-race was stable at 28 to 29 points. By the end of July, his lead had grown to 37 points, which is basically where it stands today. Trump’s lead in the 2024 primary hasn’t shifted significantly since the third indictment was unsealed on Aug. 1. A YouGov/The Economist poll conducted Aug. 5-8 found that 69 percent of Republicans think he did not do anything illegal around the events of Jan. 6 and only 10 percent think he should be charged with a crime. All of that means Trump is in a strong position to weather the storm of his alleged wrongdoing in the short-term.

But his favorability ratings took a hit

Horse-race polls don’t tell the whole story of Americans’ reactions to the indictments, though. Instead of looking only at 2024 primary polling, consider Trump’s favorability ratings. Though there has been only marginal movement in how voters view Trump over the last year, there is evidence that American adults, including Republicans, did react differently to the various indictments. After he was indicted on the hush-money charges, Trump’s net favorability (his favorability rating minus his unfavorability rating) rose 0.7 percentage points among Republicans in the next two weeks, from +52.9 to +53.7, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. His June indictment, though, was a different story. In the two weeks after federal prosecutors unsealed the classified-documents indictment, Trump’s net favorability rating among Republicans fell from +57.1 to +55.3, a drop of 1.8 percentage points.

Republicans reacted negatively to Trump’s second indictment

How Donald Trump’s net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) among Republicans changed after his three criminal indictments, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average

Indictment Date Day of indictment 2 weeks after Change
Hush-money payments to adult film star March 30 +52.9 +53.7 +0.7
Classified documents at Mar-a-Lago June 8 +57.1 +55.3 -1.8
Plot to overturn the 2020 election August 1 +51.7 +49.1 -2.6

Source: Polls

Over that same time period, Trump’s net favorability rating among all adults fell from -11.9 percentage points — the high point for him in 2023 — back down to -14.8, a slightly larger dip than among Republicans. 

Trump’s favorability rating among all adults fell after his indictments

How Donald Trump’s net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) among all adults changed after his three criminal indictments, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average

Indictment Date Net fav on day Net fav 2 weeks after Change
Hush-money payments to adult film star March 30 -11.9 -14.8 -2.9
Classified documents at Mar-a-Lago June 8 -13.6 -16.8 -2.2
Plot to overturn the 2020 election August 1 -15.9 -16.2 -0.3

Source: Polls

These might look like small changes, but public opinion of Trump has been historically stable; even shifts of just 2 or 3 points in a month represent notable change. And if we expand the window of time we’re analyzing, the news for the former president gets even worse: After gaining steadily among Republicans following his first indictment in March, Trump’s net favorability rating fell nearly 10 points among Republicans and 5 points among all adults between late May and late July, erasing most of the gains he saw throughout 2023. (Looking at a slightly longer window may be helpful because key evidence in the classified documents case leaked on May 26, several weeks before he was indicted.) His numbers have improved a bit since then among Republicans, but not among Americans as a whole.

In the two weeks since federal prosecutors filed an indictment against Trump for his conduct related to Jan. 6, his net favorability rating among Republicans has declined by 2.6 percentage points. Among all adults he is down a third of a point. Both changes are small and, due to a dearth of polls, could be noise. 

Two theories may explain why the biggest shift in Trump’s favorability rating happened after Trump was charged with mishandling of classified material. For one, it is the only crime (so far) that was not known before this year. The Wall Street Journal reported on the hush money payments way back in 2018, and the events surrounding efforts to overturn the 2020 election played out mostly in public, with lots of the evidence presented in the Justice Department’s indictment initially reported by U.S. media outlets and documented in a report from the House of Representatives last year. And while there was  some reporting on Trump’s legal efforts to hold onto classified material, including wall-to-wall coverage of a 2022 raid on Mar-a-Lago conducted as part of the investigation, the unsealing of Trump’s indictment for maintaining classified documents after he left the White House represented the first time the breadth of the prosecution’s allegations became clear.

That case also deals with matters of national security, which are important both to the average American and average Republican. Weekly tracking surveys from YouGov/The Economist show roughly 10 percent of adults say national security is the most important issue the U.S. is facing, behind only the economy (26 percent) and health care (12 percent). In their latest survey, Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to say national security was their most important issue. Republicans might be genuinely disturbed by the allegations that Trump held onto and shared classified materials in violation of U.S. law, in a way that they aren’t with the other charges against him.

The fallout for Trump may get worse in the general election

Trump’s indictments for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, meanwhile, could have additional political costs, particularly if he wins the Republican nomination. GOP primary voters might not care about allegations of interference, but general election voters are another story: Two studies of election results in the 2022 midterms found that the Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives who received endorsements from Trump or voiced support for his election denialism performed worse than Republican House candidates who did not. In a CBS/YouGov poll conducted Aug. 2-4,  a majority of adults said the indictments against Trump were “upholding the rule of law” (57 percent) and an effort to “defend democracy” (52 percent), although more than half also said the indictments and investigations were trying to stop the Trump campaign (59 percent).

And of course, these are just the indictments. Potential fallout from the trials for each series of charges (which could start as soon as January) could be even more significant. Not only will the public see an actual prosecution, Trump will also be forced to divert focus from running for president to appear in court — which could distract from his campaign. In what will be a messy next 12 months for Trump, the costs of his behavior may become clearer.

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