To hear Donald Trump tell it, the fact that he keeps getting indicted by prosecutors is a boon to his reelection effort. “Any time they file an indictment, we go way up in the polls,” he said at a dinner shortly after he was charged by the Justice Department with attempting to overturn the 2020 election.
This counterintuitive claim is questionable on its face — if not demonstrably false upon closeexamination — but it is one among many dubious arguments that Trump and his allies have advanced in recent months as he has been confronted with four different prosecutions brought by the Justice Department, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and, most recently, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in Georgia.
A new POLITICO Magazine/Ipsos poll provides some bad news for Trump: Even as he remains the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination, the cascading indictments are likely to take a toll on his general election prospects.
The survey results suggest Americans are taking the cases seriously — particularly the Justice Department’s 2020 election case — and that most people are skeptical of Trump’s claim to be the victim of a legally baseless witch hunt or an elaborate, multi-jurisdictional effort to “weaponize” law enforcement authorities against him.
Furthermore, public sentiment in certain areas — including how quickly to hold a trial and whether to incarcerate Trump if he’s convicted — is moving against the former president when compared to a previous POLITICO Magazine/Ipsos poll conducted in June. This latest poll was conducted from Aug. 18 to Aug. 21, roughly two-and-a-half weeks after Trump’s second federal indictment and several days after Trump was criminally charged in Fulton County. The poll had a sample of 1,032 adults, age 18 or older, who were interviewed online; it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points for all respondents.
Here are some of the most notable findings from our latest survey.
1. Most Americans believe Trump should stand trial before the 2024 election
On Monday, Trump’s lawyers will face off against federal prosecutors before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan over when to schedule his trial in the Justice Department’s 2020 election case — a high-stakes dispute that could have dramatic implications for the 2024 election. Federal prosecutors have proposed that the trial begin on Jan. 2, 2024, while Trump’s lawyers have countered that the trial should take place in April 2026. If Trump gets his way, that would, perhaps not coincidentally, leave him plenty of time to complete his reelection bid and, if successful, shut the case down after retaking the White House.
Americans are far closer to the Justice Department’s position than to Trump’s. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in the poll said that the federal trial in Trump’s 2020 election subversion case should take place before the 2024 Republican primaries begin early next year. A slightly higher number — 61 percent of all respondents — said that the trial should take place before the general election next November.
There was a predictable partisan split among Democrats and Republicans, with nearly 90 percent of Democratic respondents seeking an early trial date and roughly a third of Republican respondents agreeing.
It was the reaction of independents, however, that may prove most ominous for Trump. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of independents said that Trump should stand trial before next November — a figure that suggests particular interest in and attentiveness to a case that effectively alleges that Trump tried to steal the last election. By way of a rough comparison, when we asked a similar question in June following Trump’s indictment by the Justice Department in Florida concerning his retention of classified documents, fewer than half of independent respondents (48 percent) said that the trial in that case should take place before next November.
2. About half of the country believes Trump is guilty in the pending prosecutions
The claims on the part of Trump and his supporters that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” also seem to be having little effect on the views of Americans across the entire population. About half of the country — including overwhelming majorities of Democrats and roughly half of independents — believe that Trump is guilty of the series of charges.
Among the four pending cases, the Manhattan District Attorney’s prosecution produced slightly less robust figures, with a total of just 48 percent of respondents reporting that they believe Trump is guilty in that case, which concerns alleged hush money payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Befitting our polarized country, bare majorities said that they believe Trump is guilty in the other cases — 51 percent in the pending Justice Department and Fulton County prosecutions concerning the 2020 election, and 52 percent in the Justice Department’s classified documents case.
3. A conviction in DOJ’s 2020 election case would hurt Trump in the general election
Our latest poll also makes clear that it would be unhelpful for Trump’s presidential bid if he is federally convicted of a criminal scheme to steal the last election at the same time that he is asking the American people to send him back to the White House.
A plurality of respondents (44 percent) said that a conviction in the case would have no impact on their likelihood of supporting Trump, but the numbers tipped decisively against Trump among those who said that the result would inform their vote. Nearly one-third of respondents (32 percent) said that a conviction in the case would make them less likely to support Trump, including about one-third of independents (34 percent).
Only 13 percent of respondents said that a conviction would make them more likely to support Trump, and that figure was comprised mostly of Republicans.
4. There is considerable room for the numbers to get worse for Trump
Despite the seeming tsunami of news coverage of Trump’s legal issues, a sizable portion of the public is still learning about the alleged crimes of the former president.
Most respondents said that they understand the charges in the pending cases either very well or somewhat well, with the highest numbers — more than 60 percent — saying so about the federal prosecutions. But somewhere between roughly one-quarter and one-third of respondents said that they do not understand the charges in the cases well.
That could change as the cases proceed through litigation — and, in particular, if one or more cases goes to trial before next November.
It is reasonable to assume that the media coverage and the facts revealed at any trials would, on balance, be unhelpful to Trump as a political matter, even if he manages to avoid convictions. Criminal defendants generally do not come out looking better at the end of highly publicized trials, even if they get off at the end of the day.
If there is a strong defense to the charges as a factual matter, Trump and his lawyers have yet to provide it. After the latest indictment in Fulton County, for instance, Trump publicly said that he would hold a press conference and release a report that would prove his innocence.
Curious Americans were ultimately left hanging. Two days after his announcement, Trump called off the presser.
5. Half of the country believes Trump should go to prison if convicted in DOJ’s Jan. 6 case
We also asked respondents what the punishment should be, if anything, if Trump is convicted in the Justice Department’s 2020 election case. Fifty percent of respondents said that he should go to prison, including a large majority of Democrats (87 percent) and a slight majority of independents (51 percent).
Another large number of respondents were open to alternative sanctions: 16 percent of respondents said that Trump should get probation, but no imprisonment, if convicted, and 12 percent of respondents said that he should simply get a financial penalty. Only 18 percent (largely comprised of Republicans) said that there should be no penalty even upon a conviction.
The results suggest that Americans may view Trump’s conduct surrounding the Jan. 6 riot and his effort to overturn the election as more serious than those in the criminal cases that were filed against Trump earlier this year. When we asked respondents comparable questions in June, only 43 percent of respondents said that Trump should go to prison if convicted in the Justice Department’s classified documents case, while 40 percent said that Trump should go to prison if convicted in the Manhattan District Attorney’s case regarding the payments to Stormy Daniels.
6. Trump and the GOP’s ‘weaponization’ defense appears to be having limited traction
For months, Trump and his Republican allies have claimed that the Justice Department has been “weaponized” against him by President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland. We asked a series of questions in order to try to get some understanding of what Americans make of this claim. The results were decidedly mixed for team Trump.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents — including nearly two-thirds of independents — said that the Justice Department’s decision to indict Trump in the 2020 election case was based on a fair evaluation of the evidence and the law. At the same time, however, 44 percent of respondents — including 20 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of independents — said that the decision was based on trying to gain a political advantage for Biden.
In fact, more people believe Trump is guilty of weaponizing the legal system than Biden. Fifty-three percent of respondents — including 56 percent of independents — said that the Trump administration actively used the Justice Department to investigate political enemies with little or no evidence of actual wrongdoing. The comparable number for the Biden administration was 45 percent across all respondents, including 43 percent of independents.
7. Trump is the prevailing villain in the story of his indictments
To further test whether the indictments are helping Trump, we asked respondents if they had favorable or unfavorable opinions of the actions, statements and behavior of key players in the federal cases — including not just Trump, but Biden, Garland, special counsel Jack Smith and the Justice Department more generally.
The results were decidedly unhelpful to Trump. Respondents provided Trump with a net favorability rating of -31 percent — the worst figure, by far, in this battery of questions (27 percent favorable vs. 58 percent unfavorable). Biden fared much better than Trump but still came out with a net favorability rating of -9 percent (36 percent favorable vs. 45 percent unfavorable).
By contrast, the Justice Department appears to have come out slightly ahead in the scheme of things, though just barely. Respondents reported a net positive favorability rating for the Justice Department of 7 percent (40 percent favorable vs. 33 percent unfavorable). Smith’s conduct received a net positive favorability rating of 6 percent (26 percent favorable vs. 20 percent unfavorable).
And what about the famously circumspect and temperamentally moderate Garland? Perhaps appropriately for the man, Garland came out exactly even, with a net favorability rating of 0 percent in relation to his handling of the cases (22 percent favorable vs. 22 percent unfavorable).
Notably, a majority of respondents didn’t know whether to approve or disapprove of how Smith and Garland were handling the cases. Both men are still largely in the background. That may change when Trump gets to trial.