How Trump’s guilty verdict will impact the 2024 presidential election

Scandals have swirled around former President Donald Trump since his first presidential campaign in 2016. But as of Thursday — having been found guilty on all counts in his New York hush-money case — he is now officially a convicted felon. Could that fact cut through all the other headlines and be a game-changer for the 2024 election?

At first glance, there’s some evidence from polls that this conviction will meaningfully erode Trump’s support. An April survey from CNN/SSRS found that, while 76 percent of Trump supporters said they would support Trump regardless, 24 percent said they “might reconsider” their support for him if he was convicted. And a May poll from Emerson College found that 25 percent of voters said a guilty verdict in New York would make them less likely to vote for Trump.

A few pollsters have also asked two versions of the standard “who will you vote for?” question in recent weeks: one straightforward one, and one that asked respondents who they would vote for if Trump was convicted in the New York case. On average, Trump went from leading by 1 percentage point in these polls without considering the conviction to trailing by 6 points with it.

But Democrats would be wise to not get too excited about these numbers. Take another look at the wording of the CNN/SSRS poll: Twenty-four percent of Trump supporters said they “might reconsider” their vote. That’s not the same as “will definitely change” their vote! In light of this conviction, many Trump supporters might simply have a crisis of confidence about their vote without outright switching to President Joe Biden.

That’s basically what another poll from ABC News/Ipsos found. Like CNN/SSRS, they asked Trump supporters what they would do if Trump was convicted in the New York case, but they provided options for both “reconsider” and “no longer support.” Sixteen percent said they would reconsider supporting Trump, but only 4 percent said they would no longer support him. (Similar to CNN/SSRS, 80 percent said they would continue to support him.)

Likewise, you should always be careful with polls like Emerson’s that ask Americans whether something makes them more or less likely to vote a certain way. Respondents often don’t take these questions literally; instead, they use them as a proxy for whether they approve or disapprove of the thing being asked about.

Indeed, over three-quarters of those who told Emerson a conviction would make them “less likely” to vote for Trump had told the pollster on a different question that they were already voting for Biden. By contrast, only 11 percent of Trump voters said a guilty verdict would make them less likely to vote for him — so the potential impact on his actual support is much smaller than it initially appears.

Other polls also support the theory that this conviction won’t cause mass defections to Biden. Those horse-race polls I cited above? They don’t actually show many Trump voters switching their vote to Biden. Instead, most of the support Trump loses goes into the undecided column or to an unnamed, hypothetical “someone else”:

On average, Trump loses 6 points of support after a conviction is taken into account — but Biden gains only 1 point. “Someone else” or undecided gains 5 points. That’s consistent with the idea that this conviction will make some Trump supporters squeamish about the idea of pulling the lever for him, so they will stop identifying as Trump supporters for a while — but most of them won’t go so far as to vote for Biden.

And that, in turn, could indicate that this drop in Trump’s support will be short-lived. Sure, Trump supporters who abandon him after this conviction could conceivably abstain from voting or vote for a third-party candidate. But the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so there’s also a good chance that they will eventually get over their discomfort and return to Trump’s side, especially considering there are still five months left until Election Day — plenty of time for Trump to spin a narrative that helps voters overcome any hangups about voting for a convicted felon.

We don’t need to search far for a precedent for this. In October 2016, Trump’s campaign was blindsided by the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, on which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. Polls at the time showed that the tape made some Republicans uncomfortable about supporting Trump, and his national support in 538’s polling average at the time fell by about 1 point. But Trump’s support quickly recovered: Within three weeks of the tape’s release, he was polling better than he was before it.

That said, even if most Trump defectors only switch to undecided and eventually return to the fold, that doesn’t mean the conviction will have zero effect on the race. That average 1-point gain for Biden isn’t nothing — in a close race (which 2024 is shaping up to be), it could mean the difference between winning and losing. But it’s also important not to overstate the conviction’s impact. If the hush-money trial ends up determining the presidential race, it will likely be because the campaign was a game of inches anyway.

Irena Li contributed research.


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