Newsweek – “The only good thing about it is that it’s driving my poll numbers way up,” said former president Donald J. Trump in a speech last Saturday to the Georgia Republican Party convention. There, and in a similar speech to the North Carolina GOP a few hours later, Trump was rapturously greeted as he framed his federal indictment as the latest installment in a political witch hunt that’s been underway since he declared his first presidential candidacy in 2015.
Even as liberal and Never Trumper Republican pundits gleefully calculated the number of years the former president could spend behind bars if convicted, the second indictment has merely done what all Trump’s previous legal woes have: make him stronger. Over the weekend, a straw poll conducted by the Western Conservative Summit, an annual gathering in Colorado, gave Trump a five-point lead over his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who had led Trump in the same contest in each of the two previous years. According to a CBS/YouGov poll taken after the indictment and released on Sunday, Trump commands the support of 61 percent of likely Republican primary voters, enjoying a crushing 38-point lead over DeSantis. No other candidate for the GOP nomination held the support of more than four percent of likely GOP voters.
Earlier this year, Trump’s lead over DeSantis, who only declared his candidacy in May, averaged around 17 points in a collection of polls published at RealClearPolitics. After the former president’s indictment on weak charges by New York County district attorney Alvin L. Bragg in March, his lead rose to around 30 points, while a finding of civil liability for sexual battery and defamation in a lawsuit secretly funded by a major Democratic donor made no dent in his ratings.
Trump’s improved ratings are consistent with the pattern set by past impeachments, which implicated the president in far more serious possible crimes than storing documents from his administration at his private residence and discussing with counsel what to do with them. After his first impeachment, for “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress,” his approval rose by six points. Similarly, when Trump’s predecessor Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, Clinton’s approval ratings rose 10 percent.
The same CBS/YouGov poll found that 76 percent of likely Republican voters believe the indictment was politically motivated. A similar percentage said their level of support for the former president stayed the same or increased after the indictment, while only seven percent reported a negative effect. Eighty percent agree that Trump should be able to serve as president even if convicted. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday, the day before Trump surrendered himself for arraignment in federal court in Miami, found that 81 percent of Republicans believe the charges are politically motivated. These figures are not unanimous, but they go far beyond the 30 to 35 percent of Republicans who, analysts estimate, constitute Trump’s base.
Strikingly, with the exception of long-shot candidates like Asa Hutchinson and Chris Christie, Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination have publicly supported him and denounced the new indictment as a political act. One of them, entrepreneur and media personality Vivek Ramaswamy, has pledged to pardon Trump as the first act of his presidency should Trump be convicted and Ramaswamy elected. DeSantis, who took a “no comment” position on Trump’s first indictment, has pledged a thorough house cleaning of the Justice Department to correct what the Florida governor now characterizes as an uneven application of the law with regard to Trump. According to the CBS/YouGov poll, 74 percent of likely Republican voters want a candidate who is “similar to Trump” if Trump is not the GOP’s nominee.
Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine had the unintended consequence of strengthening NATO, persistent attempts to hobble Donald Trump through legal jeopardy have proved a powerful external force to unite the Republican Party behind the former president, whom many wrote off as politically dead after the disappointing 2022 midterm elections and a series of faux pas that followed.
Trump is resilient. Every day, he luxuriates in free publicity generously provided by all major media outlets across the political spectrum. He is defended by virtually everyone who counts in his party, almost all of whose rank-and-files members viscerally identify with his claims of persecution and believe that a capricious administrative-managerial caste is or will be targeting them with equal malevolence. Partisan insistence that the indictment is not political is falling on deaf ears as, increasingly, will other Democrat-led keystone cop attempts to “Get Trump,” regardless of how grounded they are in law. In advance of the former president’s arraignment, Trump pledged to continue his campaign even if convicted.
If the Democrats want to prevail over Trump in 2024, they will have to find far better strategies than convincing half the country that they are weaponizing law enforcement to remove the de facto leader of the opposition in the manner of a threatened banana republic supremo. Otherwise, as Trump announced on his Truth Social platform, it is they who could be a political opposition facing an unfriendly Justice Department.