After his first indictment, former President Donald Trump increased his lead in the polls over his 2024 Republican rivals. Now, in the wake of his second indictment, it’s begun to appear that even federal charges won’t hurt his campaign.
Many GOP strategists say that most Republican primary voters already drew their battlelines on Trump long ago, meaning this indictment (for allegedly refusing to return classified documents to federal authorities after he left the White House) doesn’t change anything. That tracks with a CBS News poll conducted June 9 and 10 — right after news of the indictment broke — that found 76 percent of likely Republican primary voters thought that the indictment was politically motivated and 61 percent said it didn’t change their views on Trump.
“At least in terms of the primary, this certainly is not likely to impact President Trump’s chances of getting the nomination,” said Matt Terrill, former chief of staff to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio when he ran for president.
But other strategists say that sentiments could change as the severity of the indictment and what it means for Trump’s electability sink in, especially among those in the party that GOP pollster Whit Ayres calls the “Maybe Trump” voters: people who like the former president, but also want someone who can win.
“Will the Trump pushback that this is all a partisan witch hunt be persuasive to them?” he asked. “Or will the devastating facts laid out in the indictment persuade at least some of them that Trump is carrying way too much baggage to win a general election in 2024?”
For now, he said, it’s too early to tell.
This indictment feels different, but Trump supporters might not care
It might be harder to pass off the damning details of this indictment as simply motivated by politics than it was for Trump and his supporters to dismiss his April indictment. That case concerned hush money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign, and hinged on what my colleague Ian Millhiser described as a “dubious legal theory.” This time, even some prominent Republican figures, including Trump’s former US Attorney General Bill Barr, have argued that the case should be taken seriously.
“If I were designing a legal case that would be easy for Republicans to dismiss as a partisan witch hunt, I would design exactly the case that [Manhattan District Attorney] Alvin Bragg brought,” Ayres said. On the other hand, he added, Trump’s latest indictment is “a devastating critique of the handling of highly sensitive classified information that most people would admit would get any other human being alive today charged with multiple felonies.”
The problem is, Trump’s supporters might not be willing to hear that — especially when that messaging is coming from people like Barr, who they haven’t perceived as being on their side for years.
“Many [Republican] voters have a growing distrust of the Justice Department or the government,” Terrill said. “A lot of these voters … look at President Trump as an individual who’s the biggest truth-teller that they’ve seen in Washington.”
Many in Trump’s camp also are unconcerned with the merits of the case, making them difficult to sway. They’re arguing that Trump is subject to a double standard compared to other officials who’ve mishandled sensitive documents, including former Vice President Mike Pence, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and President Joe Biden.
In recent months, classified documents were found in Biden’s personal Washington office and at his Delaware home, as well as at Pence’s home in Indiana. Clinton used a private, unsecured email server while serving as secretary of state that stored discussions of classified information (but not classified documents themselves). The difference, which hasn’t been acknowledged by Trump’s backers, is that Biden and Pence promptly turned over those documents; Clinton faced no charges, and there is no evidence that Biden, Pence, or Clinton willfully sought to obstruct justice.
“It’s almost like they’re putting their heads in the sand to avoid the obvious distinctions between this case and the Pence, Biden, and Clinton cases,” Ayres said. “They can’t defend what he did. No one is defending what he did.”
But even if Republican voters think the allegations against Trump are true, they might not believe them to be a dealbreaker in a matchup against Biden.
“I run into Trump supporters who think these investigations would not stop him from beating Biden,” GOP pollster Robert Cahaly said. “Biden is so unpopular. Biden also has personal baggage related to investigations and the economy. He’s still beatable.”
Trump’s GOP rivals mostly aren’t acting like anything has changed
For the most part, Trump’s GOP rivals don’t seem to think that the indictment has given them an opening in a race where Trump has been the clear frontrunner for months. Those who weren’t already running an explicitly anti-Trump platform haven’t revised their strategy of largely refraining from criticizing the former president.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and right-wing activist Vivek Ramaswamy all railed against what they described as a biased criminal justice system for delivering the indictment but didn’t comment on the specific allegations against Trump. Even former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been forthcoming about cutting ties with Trump over his handling of the January 6, 2021, insurrection, said he was “deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward.”
The exception is Trump’s former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who said on Fox News Monday that if the allegations against Trump are true, he was “incredibly reckless with our national security.”
The question is whether more candidates and Republican voters will join her in the weeks and months ahead as the case, which may not be decided until after the 2024 election, proceeds. With so many Republicans trying to break through in a crowded field, more candidates may try to seize on the argument that this indictment makes Trump less electable.
Those attacks may ultimately prove ineffective, however, given the strength of Trump’s support, Terrill said. “There are many Republican voters and many donors who believe that President Trump is the nominee that they want, and believe that he can win the general election,” he said.