Of Course Trump’s Conviction Didn’t Change the Race

For more than a year, an invisible asterisk hovered next to Donald Trump’s slim but steady polling lead over Joe Biden. Although the dozens of indictments brought against Trump in 2023 hardly hurt his campaign, surveys indicated that a criminal conviction could transform the race.

In early April, for example, the polling firm YouGov asked what was then still a hypothetical question: Should a person convicted of a felony be allowed to become president? More than two-thirds of respondents—including a majority of Republicans—said no. In the same survey, more than a third of Republicans said they would not “under any circumstances” vote for a felon as president. Another poll found that a conviction would turn Trump’s one-point lead into a five-point deficit.

Or not. The Republican who said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters has now been convicted of 34 felonies and lost no more than a smidgen of support. In the first few weeks after a New York jury found Trump guilty of carrying out a hush-money scheme, Biden may have won a point or two in some national surveys, but experts say the verdict has done virtually nothing to change the race. “There’s been essentially no impact in any meaningful way,” says Drew Linzer, the director and co-founder of Civiqs, an online-polling firm.

Pollsters told me they weren’t surprised by the conviction’s muted impact, largely because the public’s views of Biden and Trump are already so ingrained. Indeed, polling averages throughout the campaign have been more stable than in past elections (although Biden’s widely criticized performance in last week’s debate threatens that stability).

The Biden campaign initially said little about Trump’s guilty verdict, which came on May 30. But as the race held steady in the ensuing weeks, Biden changed his strategy. “The only person on this stage that is a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now,” the president said to Trump during the debate, in one of his more cleanly delivered lines of the night. Biden may be able to remind voters of Trump’s conviction, but getting them to change their vote because of it will be much harder.

Relying on hypothetical questions in polls is tricky, Taylor Orth, YouGov’s director of survey-data journalism, told me. “You have to have a healthy skepticism in interpreting what people say they’re going to do, rather than treating them as actual forecasts,” she said. “Because people’s views can change.”

Relying on hypothetical questions about a major presidential nominee becoming a convicted felon is even trickier, because historical comparisons are hard to come by. The closest example may be the impeachment of Bill Clinton a quarter century ago. When a CBS News poll in late 1998 asked whether Clinton should stay in office if the House voted to impeach him, 41 percent of respondents said he ought to resign. But once the Republican-controlled House actually did impeach him, that number dropped to just 31 percent, according to an analysis by the pollster Mark Blumenthal.

Clinton and his Democratic allies were able to convince many voters that the impeachment was a partisan exercise. Trump has pursued a similar strategy. With near-total backing from Republican Party leaders, he has tried relentlessly to discredit the charges against him along with the prosecutors who brought them, falsely accusing Biden of orchestrating it all. “He indicted me because I was his opponent,” Trump said during the debate.

If anything, Trump’s conviction has caused more voters to change their views about the criminal-justice system than about him. In the days after the verdict, YouGov asked again: Should a person convicted of a felony be allowed to become president? This time, less than a quarter of Republicans said no, and only 14 percent said they would never vote for a felon. Republicans also became more likely to say that Trump’s behavior was acceptable and legal, and to express doubts that the wealthy and powerful receive fair trials. By contrast, YouGov’s polling of the election itself barely budged.

In a close race, even slight changes in polling matter, and Biden did win some small gains after Trump’s conviction. The New York Times conducted a poll shortly after the verdict in which the paper re-interviewed the same people it had surveyed before the conviction; overall, Trump’s lead narrowed from three points to one point. In FiveThirtyEight’s average of national polls, Biden gained about 1.5 points on Trump in the weeks after the conviction (but before the debate), briefly overtaking him for the first time this year.

Similarly, polling conducted before the conviction by the Canadian firm Leger found Trump with a one-point edge over Biden. In a survey released last week, Biden was narrowly up, 45 to 43 percent. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot. But the way the last couple of elections have gone, it doesn’t take much,” Andrew Enns, an executive vice president at Leger, told me. Fox News surveys showed more improvement for Biden, but polls from Quinnipiac University and The New York Times/Siena College found Trump gaining on the president after his conviction.

Whatever damage Trump may have suffered from the verdict could prove ephemeral. Reaction to Thursday night’s debate immediately drowned out coverage of his legal woes. Democrats are bracing for Biden’s popular support to plunge, but it could be steadier than they fear—for the same reason Trump’s conviction didn’t reset the race. Just as most voters had already factored in Trump’s failings as a husband and businessman, they already thought Biden was too old, and they told pollsters as much.

Last month, Biden’s reelection team announced a $50 million advertising campaign meant to highlight the guilty verdict—in one TV ad, a narrator calls Trump a “convicted criminal”—and other legal sanctions against Trump, such as his being found liable for sexually abusing the columnist E. Jean Carroll. “What the Biden campaign is probably hoping is that by repeating it over and over and over again, they can actually teach people to associate Trump with convicted felons,” Chris Jackson, the head of public polling at Ipsos, a nonpartisan research firm, told me.

An aggressive ad campaign might be the best Biden can do to keep Trump’s conviction top of mind for voters. But like the verdict itself, the effect is likely to be marginal, pollsters told me. “Virtually every American knows what they think about Donald Trump, and they know if they believe he’s a criminal or not,” Jackson said. “And I don’t think the verdict actually changed that much.”

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