Polls show Americans lean against putting Trump in prison

One big question remains in convicted former president Donald Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial: What is the sentence, and could he go to prison? We’ll find out July 11.

Polls conducted since Thursday’s verdict reinforce how politically pivotal the answer could be in the 2024 election. But Americans have nuanced views on the subject that suggest a prison sentence could cut both ways.

On the one hand, Americans lean against sending Trump to prison for these crimes — even many who sign off on the guilty verdict.

On the other, the polls show that a prison sentence could push more voters away from him than a mere conviction.

So while a prison sentence could help convince Americans of the severity of Trump’s crimes, it could also cause them to decide it’s overkill.

Two surveys since the verdict show that slightly more Americans say Trump shouldn’t go to prison than say he should:

A significant number of Americans who approve of the Manhattan trial feel this way. For instance, in the CBS poll, Americans said that the trial was fair, 56 to 44 percent, and that the verdict was correct, 57-43. So Americans believe in the trial and outcome by double digits, but they still lean against prison time.

Trump was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records as part of an illegal effort to influence the 2016 election. The crimes are felonies punishable by 16 months to four years in prison. Experts seem to largely agree that incarceration is unlikely, given that these are the lowest-level felonies in New York and Trump has not previously been convicted of a crime. But Trump’s post-conviction conduct, including his distinct lack of remorse and potential violations of his still-operable gag order, could work against him.

The lack of support for prison time is particularly notable, since Americans have previously expressed an openness to it.

The same Reuters-Ipsos poll in January asked Americans whether Trump should be imprisoned if convicted in one of his cases. Fully 71 percent of Americans agreed with that at least “somewhat,” and 53 percent agreed with it “strongly.” Yet today, just 46 percent say prison is warranted in this particular case.

That may be a reflection of the perceived severity of Trump’s crimes. The January question didn’t ask about a specific case, and Americans have long viewed the charges in Manhattan as less serious than Trump’s three other indictments.

The big question from that case is how Americans would react to a prison sentence, should it come.

The polls have shown that a prison sentence would theoretically alienate more voters.

In April, the Reuters-Ipsos poll showed President Biden gaining two points on Trump if Trump is convicted, but gaining six points if Trump is “currently serving time in prison.” While just 9 percent of Trump supporters said they would abandon him if convicted, twice as many — 20 percent — said they would do so if Trump is in prison.

The new Reuters poll backs this up. It shows that 54 percent of registered voters say they wouldn’t vote for a convicted Trump, but 58 percent said they wouldn’t vote for an imprisoned Trump. The percentage of Republicans who say they wouldn’t back Trump rises from 14 percent to 23 percent.

But that’s seemingly if they agree that the outcome is warranted. Americans could decide that a prison sentence in this particular case is not.

They have not bought into Trump’s claims that he was targeted politically or that the trial was unfair — only about 4 in 10 or fewer Americans have said that — but other polls have shown more suspicion that politics might have played a role in this prosecution. That suggests a prison sentence could test Americans’ stomach for how far these proceedings have gone.

The data so far don’t necessarily suggest that they would turn against those proceedings. The CBS poll, for instance, shows nearly 1 in 5 Americans reserving judgment, and those opposing prison make up the slightest of majorities in the Reuters poll. Few Americans have paid very close attention to the trial — 35 percent in the CBS poll, and just 19 percent in the Reuters poll — so it seems possible that people could be convinced that prison is warranted.

But these polls reinforce what a dicey day July 11 could be — and how New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan’s sentencing decision could reverberate in the four months that follow until Election Day.

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