Donald Trump faced a new criminal indictment this week — the fourth set of charges brought by prosecutors within five months.
The latest one, unveiled by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis in Georgia, accuses Trump of conspiring with top aides and allies in a racketeering scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the state, which was narrowly won by Joe Biden.
But while Trump has conceded that the legal troubles will divert him from the 2024 campaign trail, so far they have, in fact, boosted his standing in the Republican primary race.
“Any time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls,” Trump said at a Republican party dinner in Alabama this month. “We need one more indictment to close out this election. One more indictment and this election is closed out. Nobody has even a chance,” he said.
Trump’s primary lead has widened since the first indictment
Since Trump faced the first criminal charges against him in New York in late March, his lead in the Republican primary race has only grown.
At that point, Trump had the support of 45.3 per cent of Republican primary voters, compared with 27 per cent for Ron DeSantis — though the Florida governor had not yet announced his bid. Now the gap is wider: 52.7 per cent of Republicans backed Trump at the start of this week, compared with 14 per cent for DeSantis, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.
The indictments have galvanised the conservative base who accept Trump’s argument that he is a victim of political persecution. Meanwhile, few of Trump’s rivals have dared to attack him.
According to a recent poll by New York Times/Siena, 71 per cent of Republican primary voters believe the party should back Trump in his legal battles. The same share of the party’s voters believe he did not commit serious crimes.
But five months before the first primary votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, some Republicans are still counting on Trump’s legal problems eventually weighing him down, benefiting his opponents.
The Club for Growth, an influential conservative group opposed to a Trump second term, recently launched two Iowa ads to tap into those feelings.
“I think for 2024, Trump is not the most electable candidate,” said a former Trump voter in the first ad. “He probably doesn’t wake up without 50 emails from his attorneys about current or possible indictments. That’s every day of his life now,” he said.
“I think he’d do a good job but I don’t know if we can get him elected,” said a different man in the second ad obtained by the Financial Times. “I think it’s too risky for the country. Try someone else.”
The indictments have helped Trump raise cash
Trump’s legal and political strategies are intertwined. His campaign fundraising rose immediately following the first two indictments, although with a smaller bump after the second than the first, according to federal filings.
In the first case, in Manhattan, Trump was accused of falsifying business records to cover up “hush money” payments to a porn star before the 2016 election. In the second, Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith charged Trump for allegedly mishandling classified documents, including information on US nuclear programmes.
It is unclear how much the third or fourth cases — one federal, one in Georgia; both alleging Trump conspired to subvert the 2020 election — have boosted Trump’s fundraising. But it will certainly increase his legal costs. A Trump political action committee has already spent millions on legal fees this year — and received a $12.25mn refund from a pro-Trump super Pac in May and June when its coffers grew bare.
Trump’s opponents have also sought to capitalise.
After the third indictment, former vice-president Mike Pence’s campaign sold T-shirts and hats branded with the phrase “Too Honest” — a reference to Trump’s alleged comment about Pence when he refused to overturn the 2020 election.
Scott Reed, co-chair of the pro-Pence Committed to America Pac, told the Financial Times that the group’s donations “tripled week-to-week” after that indictment, helping Pence meet the Republican party’s requirements to secure a place in the party’s first primary debate in Wisconsin this month, “and put us on a glide path for the second as well”.
“Simple fact — more people are now paying attention to Pence and his message now,” said Reed.
Biden has not publicly commented on the investigations into Trump. But Trump has depicted them as a plot to hurt his candidacy, writing on his Truth Social media platform last weekend that Biden was “getting the Trump Campaign to spend vast amounts of money on legal fees, thereby having less to spend on ads showing that Crooked Joe is the WORST PRESIDENT IN us HISTORY!”
The charges have boosted Trump’s media exposure
Donald Trump has turned to both social media and traditional news outlets, especially cable news, to broadcast his outrage at the criminal charges and even pre-empt the legal filings.
Even if the attention has focused on legal problems that would doom any other candidate, it has allowed Trump to dominate the airwaves and online debates, sucking political oxygen out of his Republican rivals.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, said on his podcast “Yes Labels” with fellow Trump campaign veteran Justin Clark that the indictments created a “nightmare scenario” for Trump’s GOP rivals.
“What’s not happening today? What didn’t happen yesterday? What’s not going to happen tomorrow? Ron DeSantis isn’t being asked about his record as governor, Nikki Haley isn’t being asked about her plan to fix inflation, Tim Scott is not being asked about his plan to stop China,” said Stepien. “And — newsflash — they aren’t going to be asked about those things for a long time.”
Google searches for Trump have spiked after every indictment, though the first generated more attention than the following two.
Meanwhile, Trump has made huge spectacles out of his court appearances, including twice delivering angry speeches after flying back from his arraignments.
Cable news channels have courted him aggressively. CNN held a controversial televised town hall meeting with Trump in May, while Fox, which seemed to be distancing itself from the former president, came around to him again with an interview in June with anchor Bret Baier.
“It’s a disgrace, what’s happening to our country, whether it’s the borders or the elections or kinds of things like this, where the DoJ has become a weapon for the Democrats, an absolute weapon,” Trump told Sean Hannity, the longtime Fox News host last month in an interview in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “And . . . we’re leading by a lot.”
The broader public is less moved by the legal drama
Though Trump’s advantage in the Republican 2024 primary race has grown alongside his legal troubles, Americans’ views of him more broadly are not shifting much. Trump is more popular now than after the January 6 Capitol riots in 2021 — but only slightly. And his popularity has worsened only marginally since the first indictment in late March.
About 40 per cent of Americans have a favourable opinion of Trump and 56 unfavourable, according to FiveThirtyEight.
For Republicans, the concern is that Trump will be a drag on their party next year, as he was for the three past elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022, when moderate and independent voters balked at the former president’s positions, style and preferred candidates.
Many Democrats have long considered Trump to be easier for Biden to beat in a general election rematch than a new, or younger, Republican candidate. But polls show Biden with only a slim edge over Trump in a head-to-head race. The Democratic president suffers from his own low approval ratings and doubts about his age, suggesting the race will be close and once again settled in the battleground states.