At a Republican Party dinner in Alabama Friday night, former President Donald Trump delivered his first public remarks since being indicted earlier in the week for conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss.
True to form, Trump decided to indulge in some armchair punditry about his polling.
“Any time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls,” Trump said. “We need one more indictment to close out this election. One more indictment, and this election is closed out. Nobody has even a chance.”
The first part of Trump’s analysis has almost become the conventional wisdom. But is it accurate? And what can the relationship (so far) between Trump’s poll numbers and his indictments really tell us about his reelection chances?
Hush money indictment bump
Trump is right about one thing: His lead in the Republican nominating contest has grown since he was indicted in Manhattan for allegedly covering up a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. On that day — March 30 — Trump was averaging 45.3% support among GOP primary voters, according to the aggregators at FiveThirtyEight. His closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was averaging 27%; the gap between them was 18.3 percentage points.
Two weeks later, Trump was ahead of DeSantis by 54.1% to 24.1% — a 30-point margin. It’s hard to deny that the initial indictment — widely seen as the weakest of the bunch — had an effect on Republicans.
Since then, however, the story has gotten more… complicated.
Assist from DeSantis
Consider Trump’s next indictment, on June 8, for mishandling classified documents and obstructing the government’s repeated efforts to recover them. Before this second round of (more serious and solid) federal charges were filed, Trump was averaging 52.2% support among GOP primary voters — down slightly from his peak after the previous indictment. Two weeks later, he was down even more, to 50.5%.
So no, Trump does not “go way up” in the Republican primary polls “any time they file an indictment.” Instead, he appears to have climbed into the low 50s after the Manhattan charges, then leveled off.
Which isn’t to say that Trump’s basic observation — that he is now the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination — is wrong. But his three indictments (and counting) probably aren’t the main reason. DeSantis’s numbers, for instance, have been plummeting since before any charges were filed: from a high of 40.5% in January (after he handily won reelection in Florida); to about 31% in early March (after he stumbled on Ukraine and other issues); to about 22% after his glitchy campaign launch in late May; to a paltry 15.1% today.
So the size of Trump’s current lead (38 points) is less about Trump’s support going “way up” since March (it hasn’t) and more about DeSantis’s support going way down.
General election warning signs
Even if Trump’s indictments haven’t hurt him with the GOP base, they certainly haven’t helped him with general-election voters. In fact, the opposite is probably closer to the truth.
According to FiveThirtyEight, 56.4% of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of Trump — up about two percentage points since his first indictment, and tied with his highest number since leaving office. Just 39.4% of Americans have a favorable opinion of him. The gap between those two numbers — 17% — hasn’t been so wide since Feb. 2021, right after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
And while only 51% of Americans said in the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll that they consider “falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments to a porn star” to be a “serious crime,” that number rose to 65% for “taking highly classified documents from the White House and obstructing efforts to retrieve them” and 70% for “conspiring to overturn the results of a presidential election.” Among independents, who will likely decide the 2024 election, those same numbers rose from 45% to 63% to 70%, respectively.
At the same time, just 24% of Americans — and 25% of independents — think Trump should be allowed to serve as president again “if convicted of a serious crime in the coming months.”
For Trump, those stats point to the political peril of adding more indictments to the pile. In 2020, he earned 46.8% of the popular vote — and lost to Joe Biden by 7 million ballots. To win the 2024 general election, the former president needs to gain votes, not just retain them.
Yet Trump is currently averaging 44% among the general electorate — and trailing Biden slightly.
“We know from 2020 that Trump can’t win a national presidential election without drawing a significant number of self-identified independents,” Ankush Khardori, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, wrote last week in Politico. “I find it very hard to believe that it could actually be good for a candidate running for president to be under federal indictment for trying to steal the last election.”