No, Trump’s legal woes aren’t helping him

Analysis by Harry Enten, CNN

CNN  —  Former President Donald Trump has seemingly defied political gravity time and time again. This year, he clinched the Republican nomination for president while under four different criminal indictments.

Trump’s success might make you believe that he has turned the conventional wisdom on its head – that somehow, his legal troubles are helping him politically.

And while that may have been true in the primary, the general election is a different ballgame. There isn’t much of a sign that Trump’s legal woes are helping him among the wider electorate, even if they aren’t hurting him necessarily.

Consider Trump’s polling against President Joe Biden. You might think that Trump would be gaining against Biden, if the cases against Trump were helping him. After all, attention has turned away from the election and toward the New York hush money trial.

Instead, Biden has, if anything, been the one who has picked up ground over the last few months, as both men have clinched their respective parties’ nominations. While the exact amount of movement has varied by pollster, Biden was behind by about 2 points on average during the height of the Republican primary a few months ago.

Today, the race between Biden and Trump is basically tied nationally, with a few pollsters having Biden up within the margin of error (e.g. Marist College and Reuters/Ipsos), a few having Trump up within the margin of error (e.g. the New York Times/Siena College and NBC News) and some have them exactly tied (e.g. Quinnipiac University).

We can also take a wider view. The first criminal indictment of Trump occurred in New York in late March 2023. The polls back then showed basically the exact same thing as they do now. Some pollsters had Trump up within the margin of error (e.g. Ipsos), some had Biden ahead within the margin of error (e.g. Quinnipiac), and some had the race exactly tied (e.g. Marquette University Law School).

Indeed, what I think may be happening is a bit of a misinterpretation of what the polling data is putting out.

Take, for example, the New York hush money case. It’s clear from the data that most Americans don’t think Trump did something illegal. Just 33 percent of Americans do, according to the latest CNN/SSRS poll. Likewise, most Americans don’t think that if the charges were true that they would be disqualifying for the presidency.

Put another way, the public is fine with Trump running for president, even with this case looming over him. To get from these data points to then saying Americans don’t believe Trump did something wrong is a logical leap, however.

These polls suggest that Americans aren’t happy with Trump’s actions. In addition to that 33 percent who think Trump did something illegal, there’s another 33 percent who think he did something unethical, but not illegal, as it relates to his actions in the New York case. That’s two-thirds of the public who believe he did something wrong.

Moreover, a significantly higher share of the public (42 percent) agree that Trump’s been acting inappropriately during his hush money trial than appropriately (25 percent). Trump has been accused of violating his gag orders and has been giving mini-speeches outside the courtroom on numerous occasions.

The polling in the New York case is notable because it tends to be the one that polls worst with the public. Higher shares of the public think, for instance, he should be disqualified from the presidency, if the charges in any of the other three criminal indictments are true.

In other words, if Trump were getting a polling bump for any case, it should be this one.

The lack of a bounce for Trump makes sense when you realize that his central argument (i.e. that these cases are somehow a political witch hunt against him) isn’t being bought by the plurality of Americans.

In the latest CNN poll, 34 percent of Americans said Trump was being treated more harshly than other criminal defendants. More said either he was being treated more leniently (34 percent) or the same (13 percent). An NBC poll, which asked a similar question, found that 50 percent of voters say he is being held to the same standard as anyone else accused of what he was, while 43 percent thought he was being unfairly targeted.

In fact, the people who are paying closer attention to Trump’s criminal cases are more likely to favor Biden than those who aren’t, according to polling from the Times.

Now, there is something to be said about the fact that Trump is raising a lot of money off of these different indictments and court appearances. You can literally see that many of Trump’s biggest fundraising days have been on days when he was in court.

The problem is that he’s spending a ton of money on legal fees as well. According to the Financial Times, Trump’s different committees have spent more than $75 million on legal costs. Biden’s campaign has, by comparison, spent a fraction on legal costs.

It’s not clear whether the money Trump’s raising because of appeals to his base during his legal troubles is offsetting the amount his committees are spending.

Perhaps, the best news for Trump is that he’s tied nationally with Biden, and he likely is in a better position in the swing states that will determine who is the next president.

Of course, given that he’s facing off against an incumbent that most voters think is too old and has an approval rating close to 40 percent, I’m not sure that’s necessarily all that much of a flex.

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