After weeks of speculation, former President Donald Trump was indicted, arrested, and arraigned in connection with hush money payments to the porn actress Stormy Daniels, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, and a former Trump Tower doorman. Trump has spent weeks signaling that he thinks the indictment, the first levied against a former president, will benefit him politically, and has been using his latest legal troubles to fundraise.
But while his campaign claims it has raked in more than $8 million in recent days, it’s not clear the former president will benefit in the long run.
Trump’s indictment could strengthen support among the Republican base for his 2024 reelection campaign. But it could also turn off voters who have come to see Trump as a liability given his refusal to accept his 2020 election loss, the resulting fallout of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, and the bevy of additional criminal and civil investigations he’s facing. Those include probes into his business dealings, interference in the 2020 election in Georgia, withholding of classified documents after he left office, and his role in inciting the insurrection, which could lead to additional indictments.
Even if an indictment earns him votes over his Republican Party challengers in the primary, it’s unclear whether the same would be true in the general election. The news that it might be imminent had already splintered his own party, with some of his political opponents, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, invoking it in their lines of attack; others had rushed to the former president’s defense in the face of what they frame as a politically motivated case.
We spoke with pollsters and political strategists from both parties before the news of the indictment dropped about what they think it could mean in the months ahead.
The case that an indictment may help Trump
Robert Cahaly, senior strategist and pollster at the Trafalgar Group and former Republican political consultant:
With all the stuff that’s out there brewing that could turn into some kind of legal action against Trump, this is probably the weakest case. I think it’s very beneficial for Trump that something so superficial and silly is the first example.
It’s one thing when OJ [Simpson] is in the headlines, and everybody thinks that what he did was horrible. It’s another thing when somebody’s in the headlines and everybody doesn’t think going after them is fair. Trump’s best role has always been a conservative martyr. And this falls right in that ... Literally, I can see them selling millions of T-shirts with his mug shot as a badge of honor.
There are a lot of people who really like Trump, but they just don’t think he can win. They just think they need somebody different. This is taking some of those people off the sidelines and making them consider Trump even now in the primary ... Whoever’s galvanizing your opposition the most is most likely someone that your fans are going to rally behind.
Whit Ayres, founder and president of the polling firm North Star Opinion Research and adviser to GOP congressional and gubernatorial candidates:
Anything I say is rank speculation completely uninformed by data or evidence. We’re talking about something that has never ever occurred before in American history. There is no data on the political implications of indictment of a former president and leading presidential candidate.
I am skeptical that a charge about a years-old event that everybody has already known about for years is likely to have much impact on anything, other than it will probably rally Republicans and supporters of Trump around him, at least in the short term. This would be a very easy case to frame as a partisan political indictment. Much easier to frame that way than, say, the Georgia voting case or the classified documents or January 6.
It will force every other Republican candidate to react to it, which of course, keeps Trump directly in the spotlight — as he usually is.
The case that an indictment hurts Trump (and his party)
Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist among the few who correctly predicted the results of the 2022 midterms:
I think it will help [Trump] in the Republican primary, but will continue to degrade him with the broader electorate. MAGA has underperformed in three consecutive elections, and we know it doesn’t work in the battlegrounds. And if the Republicans present themselves as the party all for MAGA in 2024, they’re gonna have a very, very hard time winning the presidency.
Trump coming in as the nominee, having been indicted potentially two or three times — there’s no scenario where that’s helpful to him in a national election. It perhaps will help him crowd out DeSantis and other challengers in the primary. But of course, that would be a disaster for the Republican Party. I’d much rather be us than them heading into this next election.”
Matt Dole, an Ohio-based Republican strategist:
Trump faced an uphill battle before this for the nomination. I think [his indictment] probably just adds to that. A lot of folks in the Republican coalition want an option that espouses [Trump’s] policies without bringing the antics. Ron DeSantis, obviously, is the model for that.
Over the long term, I think this probably helps Trump’s opponents in the Republican primary. There’s certainly a lot to be said for political attacks on President Trump. But I think throughout the entire Republican coalition, this probably hurts him more than it would help.
There is a subset of Republicans who are going to support Donald Trump to the very end. And they are loud. And they are well-covered by the media. There will certainly be blowback. But again, all of this is feeding into the fatigue about Donald Trump. So I could personally believe that this is a politically motivated indictment. And I could also believe that it’s just another thing to add to the long list of things that I’m tired of having to defend and deal with as a Republican.”
Update April 4, 5:10 pm: This story, originally published on March 25, has been updated with news that Trump was detained and arraigned.