How Trump’s Indictment Could Affect The 2024 Election
MAR. 31, 2023, AT 9:54 AM
On Thursday, a Manhattan grand jury voted to indict former President Donald Trump, making him the first president in U.S. history to be indicted. As of now, though, we still have many questions — including how this bombshell will affect his campaign to regain the presidency in 2024.
Since we have no precedent to guide us, the honest answer is that we don’t know how this will affect Trump politically. Any of these three things could happen: This news could hurt Trump; it could help him; or it could not impact the race at all. Here’s a look at the arguments for all three.
Scenario 1: It will hurt Trump
Breaking news: Scandals are bad for political candidates. According to our research, scandal-plagued incumbents performed an average of 9 percentage points worse than expected in general elections1 between 1998 and 2016. And we have more recent evidence, too: Herschel Walker, the anti-abortion Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2022, slipped a few points in the polls after it was revealed that he had paid for his pregnant then-girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009.2 And when the election results came in, Walker (also besieged by other scandals) underperformed the rest of the Republican ticket in Georgia by between 3 and 6 points. So even in this age of intense partisanship, scandals still appear to hurt a candidate’s chances of winning.
Polls also support the hypothesis that an indictment would hurt Trump’s chances of becoming president again. But I want to preemptively warn you: Over the next few weeks, you might see some polls asking Americans if the indictment makes them more or less likely to vote for Trump. You should not put a lot of stock in these polls. Most people who say the indictment makes them less likely to vote for Trump were probably never planning to vote for Trump in the first place.
Instead, pay more attention to polls like this one from Quinnipiac University that was conducted before news of Trump’s indictment broke (but after Trump teased that it might happen on social media). Quinnipiac found that 53 percent of registered voters considered the accusations about Trump paying hush money to Stormy Daniels to conceal an affair3 to be either “very serious” or “somewhat serious.” And 56 percent believed that if criminal charges were filed against Trump, they should disqualify him from running for president again. While the indictment does not legally disqualify Trump from serving as president, it sure seems like many voters will hold it against him.
Of course, these are only explanations for how the indictment would hurt Trump in the general election. And it is probably more likely to hurt him in the general than it is to hurt him in the primary — but it could still hurt him in the primary too. While Trump remains very popular among Republican voters (according to Civiqs, 75 percent view him favorably), he is not the only politician they like. Civiqs also found that 84 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump’s potential 2024 opponents. And according to Morning Consult, 46 percent of Trump supporters say DeSantis is their second choice for president. Simply put, many of Trump’s supporters in the primary are still open to voting for another candidate.
Even if this indictment alone isn’t enough to put Republicans off Trump, it could still hurt him in combination with the other three investigations he is currently a target of. If Trump is also indicted in one or more of those cases, it’s harder to see them shrugging this indictment off as a Democrat-led “witch hunt.” Republicans don’t even have to stop liking Trump or believing that he’s innocent; they just need to come to the conclusion that he has too much baggage to be their standard bearer in 2024. Multiple indictments could also be a logistical hurdle for Trump’s campaign; as my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote the other day, “It could be hard to jet around to rallies when you have to appear in court in multiple states!”
Scenario 2: It will help Trump
Could being charged with a crime help Trump’s campaign? It’s hard to come up with an argument that it could buoy him in a general election, but it’s a distinct possibility in the primary. Trump could experience a polling boost similar to a rally-around-the-flag effect that presidents sometimes experience when the nation comes under threat — except this time, Trump himself is under threat.
Most Republicans believe Trump is being unfairly persecuted. According to an Ipsos/Reuters poll, 75 percent of Republicans agree with the statement, “Some members of the Democratic Party and law enforcement are working to delegitimize former President Donald Trump through politically motivated investigations.” And when an outside force threatens something they identify with, people tend to rally to that thing’s defense.
Another reason why politicians often experience rally-around-the-flag effects in times of crisis: their political opponents go quiet and stop criticizing them. That looks like it’s already happening with Trump. Rather than attacking him for being an accused criminal, Trump’s Republican opponents (both declared and potential) are coming to his defense. “Arresting a presidential candidate on a manufactured basis should not happen in America,” Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin tweeted. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said the indictment “is more about revenge than it is about justice.” Sen. Tim Scott called it a “travesty.” Former Vice President Mike Pence called it an “outrage.” DeSantis called it “un-American.”
Trump is already leading most polls for the 2024 Republican nomination. If he is given a platform to woo undecided voters while the other candidates feel unable to make a case for an alternative, that imbalance may result in Trump making gains over his rivals.
Scenario 3: It won’t matter
Finally, there’s a good argument that the indictment will neither help nor hurt Trump. Even if they don’t actively rally to his defense, very few Republicans think the allegations are that serious. According to a Marist College/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll conducted March 20-23, 45 percent of Republicans think Trump has done nothing wrong, and another 43 percent think he did something unethical but not illegal. And according to Quinnipiac, 93 percent of Republicans thought the Manhattan district attorney’s case was mainly motivated by politics, while only 5 percent thought it was mainly motivated by the law.
In addition, Trump’s alleged wrongdoing is also already baked into public opinion about him. We first learned that Trump paid off Daniels to stay silent about their alleged affair back in 2018. Over the years, Trump has also combatted allegations that he conspired with Russia to sabotage Democrats in the 2016 election, sexually harassed or assaulted at least 18 women, committed tax fraud, coerced the president of Ukraine into giving him dirt on political opponents, pressured the Georgia secretary of state to overturn the 2020 election, incited the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and mishandled classified documents. In fact, even before the indictment, a YouGov poll found that 65 percent of Americans thought that Trump had “definitely” or “probably” committed a crime.
Indeed, throughout his presidency, public opinion of Trump proved remarkably difficult to budge. Perhaps the closest parallel to Trump’s indictment this week was his impeachment over the Ukraine scandal in 2019 (an impeachment is often compared to an indictment). From Sept. 24, 2019 (when the impeachment inquiry was announced), to Feb. 5, 2020 (when he was acquitted by the Senate), his average approval rating never left the 40-44 percent range. And support for removing him from office was as flat as a pancake, both among Republicans and the general public:
Another potentially instructive comparison is last August, when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida home, concerning his possession of classified documents. It was an explosive news story that suggested Trump was in serious legal hot water — and it barely registered in polls of his favorable and unfavorable ratings:
Finally, here’s the most convincing argument for “LOL, nothing matters”: Even if the indictment does affect Trump’s polling numbers in the next month or so, there’ll still be eight more months until the 2024 primaries and 18 until the 2024 general election. That’s a lot of time for people to change their minds and those numbers to revert to the mean. And other issues, like a potential recession, may have eclipsed Trump’s legal troubles by the time any voting occurs; for the general election, there’s plenty of time for people to return to their partisan corners.
Just look at what happened in the 2016 presidential election after the Access Hollywood tape was released on Oct. 7. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average at the time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened up a 7-point lead in national polls by Oct. 17. But by Nov. 2, the gap had narrowed again to just 3 points, aided by yet another October surprise, this one in Trump’s favor.
Of the three potential futures considered in this article, the “no difference” hypothesis probably has the most historical precedent as far as Trump is concerned. But again, Trump has never faced a situation as grave as an indictment, so no outcome should surprise us. So as we like to say here at FiveThirtyEight, we’ll have to wait and see.