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Is This The Indictment That Really Hurts Trump?

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump was indicted for the third time. Federal prosecutors have charged him with four counts of conspiracy and obstruction in relation to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Every time we’ve done this, the first question on everyone’s lips is always, “How will this affect Trump’s chances in the 2024 presidential election?” It may seem silly to keep asking that; after all his legal troubles, he’s still the far-and-away front-runner for the GOP nomination and competitive with President Biden in early general-election polls. But it’s also an oversimplification to say that his prior indictments have had no impact on his campaign, and there are signs that Americans view Trump’s role in trying to overturn the 2020 election as a particularly serious offense.

First, let’s take a closer look at voters’ reactions to Trump’s first two indictments. His first indictment, in New York on March 30 on charges of falsifying business records to pay off an adult entertainment actress he allegedly had an affair with, clearly didn’t hurt him politically. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average of Trump’s favorability ratings, his net favorable rating remained stable before and after the indictment. If anything, the indictment may have helped him consolidate support in the Republican primary. On March 29, he was averaging 45 percent in national polls; by April 13, he was up to 54 percent.

But his second indictment went differently. After June 8, when it was reported that federal prosecutors were indicting him for possessing classified documents and obstructing efforts to get them back, his average support in the GOP primary faltered ever so slightly. And his average net favorable rating fell by a couple of percentage points.

Although we can’t prove that all these shifts happened because of the indictments, the difference in reaction at least suggests that Americans are drawing distinctions between Trump’s various legal troubles. And other polling backs that up. According to a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from July 13-17, 50 percent of registered voters considered falsifying business records to conceal hush-money payments to a porn star to be a serious crime. But 64 percent of registered voters considered it a serious crime to take highly classified documents from the White House and obstruct efforts to retrieve them. Similarly, a June 22-26 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 35 percent of U.S. adults thought Trump did something illegal when it came to the hush-money payments. But 53 percent thought he did something illegal with regard to the classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

By this logic, this third indictment could be even more damaging to Trump than the one involving classified documents. According to the same YouGov/Yahoo News poll, 69 percent of registered voters considered it a serious crime to attempt to obstruct the certification of a presidential election, and 71 percent said the same about conspiring to overturn the results of a presidential election. 

Americans view the federal Jan. 6 charges very seriously …

Share of registered voters who believed each allegation was a serious crime, according to a July 13-17 poll

Allegation % who think it’s a serious crime
Conspiring to overturn the results of a presidential election 71%
Attempting to obstruct certifying a presidential election 69
Taking classified documents and obstructing retrieval efforts 64
Falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments 50

Source: YouGov/Yahoo News

AP-NORC also suggests Americans will take this indictment more seriously than the first one, but perhaps not as seriously as the second. In their poll, 45 percent of adults thought Trump did something illegal in connection with what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

… But the Jan 6. case may not be Trump’s biggest vulnerability

Share of U.S. adults who believed Donald Trump did something illegal in connection with each case, according to a June 22-26 poll

Case % who think Trump acted illegally
Classified documents at Mar-a-Lago 53%
Events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 45
Hush money payments to alleged mistress 35

Source: Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

One other recent survey on the topic, conducted July 19-20 by Harris Poll/Harvard University Center for American Political Studies, doesn’t make a direct comparison between the cases but still supports the idea that Americans will view this indictment seriously. In the poll, 64 percent of registered voters believed that Trump actively tried to overturn the results of the election, and 57 percent thought federal prosecutors had a very or somewhat strong criminal case against him for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

All that said, the unprecedented nature of an ex-president and active presidential candidate being indicted three times in less than six months makes it very hard to predict what will happen to his polling numbers. It’s easy to imagine each successive indictment having a smaller and smaller effect as there are fewer and fewer people left who are swayable; every Republican inclined to vote for Trump amid a rash of indictments may already be in his corner, and every person inclined to turn against him may have already done so. On the other hand, it’s possible that the indictments will have a cumulative effect if voters prove willing to tolerate a candidate facing one (perhaps, in their eyes, politically motivated) indictment but not one weighed down by three. Indeed, this may be an alternative explanation for why the second indictment hurt him more than the first.

And don’t forget: It may not be the indictments that ultimately seal Trump’s fate. If he wins the Republican nomination and then goes on trial for one or more of these charges, he could face more significant political damage. And a conviction before Nov. 5, 2024 — particularly in one of the two federal cases — could be hard for many voters to look past. According to YouGov/Yahoo News, 62 percent of registered voters believe Trump should not be allowed to serve as president again if he’s convicted of a serious crime. Given how closely divided the U.S. is these days, it’s very unlikely that Biden will win the election 62 percent to 38 percent, but the poll is still an indication that there are plenty of skeptical voters Trump would have to win over to prevail.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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