Why a Trump conviction might not save Biden’s reelection

The evidence so far suggests the race might shift only slightly, by a few points. That could be important in another close election, but it’s not the kind of Trump collapse that Democrats may hope for — or Biden may need if his numbers don’t improve.

Trump’s legal peril is unprecedented, and the sentiment that a criminal conviction could be a mortal wound to his candidacy is mostly driven by political intuition right now. But we’re starting to get more data on how a conviction would affect Trump’s chances to defeat Biden, thanks to pollsters who’ve asked voters what they would do if a jury found Trump guilty.

Take last week’s Wall Street Journal poll. Trump led Biden by 4 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup, 47 percent to 43 percent. The race shifted only slightly, to a 1-point Biden lead, among respondents who were also asked what they would do if Trump were convicted in either of the two federal cases, either for unlawfully possessing classified documents or conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Since only about half of the respondents were asked about a hypothetical Trump conviction, the two results aren’t directly comparable. But they suggest a massive swing against Trump is unlikely. And the margins are small: With just a 1-point lead in a hypothetical Trump conviction scenario, Democrats can’t rely on a small post-conviction swing tipping the race.

And that’s if he’s even convicted before the election. Though Trump’s 2024 calendar is littered with planned trial dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, there’s no guarantee that those cases won’t be pushed until after Election Day.

The 2024 tea-leaf reading wouldn’t be the first time that Trump’s controversies have led critics to prematurely bury his electoral prospects, whether it was the October 2016 revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape or predictions that the GOP would move on from the then-president in the wake of his 2020 defeat and the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol.

Of course, Trump’s poll numbers did drop — temporarily — following those events. But he recovered in time to defeat Hillary Clinton less than a month after the “Access Hollywood” tape became public and, earlier this year, to become the prohibitive Republican favorite for the nomination.

A criminal conviction might have a similar effect.

Last month’s New York Times/Siena College poll asked likely voters in six Biden-won swing states who said they weren’t supporting him — a collection of Trump voters and those who said they were undecided — what they would do if Trump “were convicted and sentenced to prison but were still the Republican nominee.”

Most of them would still vote for Trump, but 5 percent of the likely electorate across those swing states said they would vote for Biden under that circumstance. That’s potentially enough to tilt the race to the Democratic incumbent — but it’s not guaranteed, especially with Biden already trailing.

Most of that 5-point shift came from voters who were undecided or preferred another candidate in the initial Biden-Trump contest. The New York Times/Siena crosstabs also suggest young voters and independents who hadn’t picked Biden before were slightly more likely to say they would vote for him if Trump were convicted.

Other polls have similarly found that movement away from Trump in the event of a criminal conviction could provide a much-needed boost to Biden — but only a modest one. Half of respondents in a Vanderbilt University poll in Tennessee this month were asked to consider a straight matchup between Biden, Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; Trump led by 19 points.

But the other half were asked for whom they would vote if Trump “had been convicted of one or more felonies by a jury.” In that matchup, Trump’s lead contracted to 13 points, though most of the defections went to Kennedy and an unnamed “other” candidate.

Even polls conducted by self-interested parties show a Trump conviction having only a minor effect on the election. WPA Intelligence, the GOP polling firm working for the pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, released a poll in September that found Biden ahead of Trump by 2 points on the initial ballot.

The firm has been unsparing in its portrayal of Trump as an electoral albatross on the party. But even its poll found only a small shift toward Biden, who went from ahead by 2 points to up by 6 points if Trump were convicted.

There are a few polls that suggest a Trump conviction could be more significant, but they mostly gloss over the polarization of the electorate. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll this month, 64 percent of Americans said they would at least somewhat agree with the statement that Trump “should not run for president” if he’s convicted of a crime. But saying he shouldn’t run is a far cry from saying they wouldn’t vote for him with only a limited number of choices on the ballot.

My colleagues at POLITICO Magazine commissioned their own polling with Ipsos back in August. Roughly a third of respondents, 32 percent, said a conviction would make them less likely to vote for Trump — far from unanimity.

In the days after Trump’s first indictment in the New York hush-money case, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll asked Americans whether they want Trump to be president again — and those who said they did were asked whether they still felt that way if Trump were to be convicted of a crime. Just 34 percent of Americans said they wanted Trump as president, but it dropped only slightly, to 27 percent, if he were convicted.

Most Americans already don’t want Trump — or Biden, for that matter — to run, despite the overwhelming likelihood they will be the nominees. If 2024 is a 2020 rematch, it will be a contest between two candidates the country doesn’t particularly want. And voters appear to be pricing in Trump’s legal woes already.

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