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Trump’s conviction is not the time for snap political analysis

Though historic, the verdict isn’t necessarily a game-changer in presidential race

Newspapers reporting on former President Donald Trump’s criminal conviction are for sale near Trump Tower in New York City prior to the presumed Republican presidential nominee holding a news conference on Friday.
Newspapers reporting on former President Donald Trump’s criminal conviction are for sale near Trump Tower in New York City prior to the presumed Republican presidential nominee holding a news conference on Friday. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — Now what? Now that Donald Trump is the first current or former president convicted of a felony, what does that mean for the 2024 presidential election? It’s a valid question — without an instant answer. And that’s not popular in a world that rewards, and sometimes requires, instant insightful analysis. 

It’s just not possible, as the country has never seen this before. The word “unprecedented” gets thrown around too easily, but it truly applies in this situation.

So it’s healthy to be skeptical when anyone asserts that they know exactly how this conviction is going to play out in the election. I’m reminded by comedian John Mulaney’s “horse in a hospital” bit to explain so-called experts trying to fit Trump into conventional analysis. It doesn’t work.

“Trump just EASILY won the 2024 National election. Congratulations Mr. President,” celebrity evangelical worship leader Sean Feucht wrote on X, formerly Twitter. Actual Republican strategists sounded a similar theme

Even though we seem to be sprinting toward Election Day, I’d prefer to pause before assuming I know exactly how this will play out.

Political handicappers are supposed to have the most accurate analysis at the ready, but that’s not always a reasonable expectation. Extreme confidence is disingenuous. I’d prefer to face the next chapter of this election with some humility and rely on some fundamentals of political analysis. 

Known knowns

Faced with plenty of uncertainty, what do we know?

Trump’s trial and conviction was a historic event but not necessarily a political game-changer. It will take a couple of weeks for the news to seep in with voters and for credible pollsters to reach those voters to understand whether the race has fundamentally changed. My former boss, Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg, used to remind me that the worst time to evaluate the political fallout from an event is in the middle or immediate aftermath of it. And that’s where we are today. In due time, we’ll have real data on whose hypothesis proves to be correct. 

I’m initially skeptical that the conviction will affect the race dramatically because public opinion has solidified around Trump and President Joe Biden. Biden’s job approval rating and Trump’s favorability rating haven’t fundamentally changed in nearly three years, according to FiveThirtyEight. So my default position is that even this historic event won’t change public opinion, until proven otherwise.

Even as a convicted felon, Trump benefits from the perception that he’s an outsider. He was president for four years and has been running for president for nearly a decade, and yet he’s not considered a politician. So some voters are more forgiving of him because of their disdain for government and politicians.

For some similar reasons, it’s reasonable to assume that the vast majority of Trump’s supporters will remain firmly behind him. They believe the trial shouldn’t have happened in the first place, so disregarding and deriding a guilty verdict is unsurprising. 

But this outcome wasn’t necessary to solidify the GOP base. It was going to be there for him in November anyway. And the narrative that Trump’s conviction will expand his vote share is premature if not dubious. And a solidified Republican base is not sufficient to win a presidential election. Trump needs independent voters as well.

Is there a sizable group of voters who were on the fence, or previously opposed Trump, who are now compelled to vote for him as a convicted felon? I’m skeptical. A lot of the initial evidence for this was based on a tweet by Conn Carroll, the Washington Examiner’s commentary editor: “Through two primaries and two general elections I have never voted for Trump. I would crawl over broken glass to vote for him now.” The tweet had 1.3 million views as of midnight Thursday. “Democrats have now proven to be a far far far greater threat to the rule of law,” he added later. 

I don’t have a reason to doubt Carroll’s political journey, but he’s one of approximately 150 million expected voters, and we’ll see if there’s subsequent evidence that he’s the leading edge of a larger trend. 

The presidential race was competitive before the verdict and it’s competitive after the verdict. Since the country remains politically divided, the vast majority of voters have already made up their minds about which party they are going to support and will be undeterred between now and November. Just a small percentage of voters are persuadable.

That being said, the conviction doesn’t have to be a big deal to make a big difference. The Biden vs. Trump rematch is a close and competitive contest, and small shifts could affect the outcome.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll from April showed 80 percent of Trump supporters would continue to support him if convicted and 16 percent said they would reconsider their support. Just 4 percent said they would withdraw their support. Let’s say that the “reconsiders” ultimately continue to support Trump and 96 percent of the former president’s base remains intact. Losing 4 percent of his supporters could be enough to evaporate the current advantage Trump has over Biden in the race. 

But that question was theoretical when pollsters asked it. Now the conviction is reality. So the news might hit voters differently. Once again, time will tell. 

One key consequence of the Trump conviction has less to do with legal issues and is more about the focus of the electorate. The conviction and upcoming sentencing and appeals, along with the GOP’s determination to make him a political martyr, will keep Trump in the spotlight. If Trump is the focus of the election, he’s likely to lose. Republicans should want the election to be focused on Biden because an election focused on the current president isn’t likely to go well for Democrats.

As long as the presidential race remains close and competitive, the fights for Congress will be competitive as well. Even though Republicans currently control the House, their path to control the Senate next year might be easier, but the overall pretrial political dynamics favored the GOP. We’ll know in a few weeks whether that holds true.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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