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Friday, June 16, 2023

Donald Trump Has a Polling Problem

Donald Trump Has a Polling Problem

“Most Republicans still support Trump. But the polls still suggest the federal indictment is hurting him.

A man in a red-and-white striped shirt stands near an American flag with a “Make America Great Again” hat on.
Trump supporters near Mar-a-Lago.Hilary Swift for The New York Times

You’re reading The Morning newsletter.  Make sense of the day’s news and ideas. David Leonhardt and Times journalists guide you through what’s happening — and why it matters.

The 50 percent threshold in a poll can sometimes be distracting. When more than half of people give a certain answer, it often becomes the dominant message to emerge from the poll question. It is the answer that appears to have won. Yet the most important information may nonetheless be lurking elsewhere.

Consider the surveys over the past week that have asked Americans their opinions about the federal charges against Donald Trump. Here are the results of an ABC News/Ipsos survey, which were similar to other poll results:

Americans’ views on Trump’s latest indictment

Do you think the charges against Trump are ...

Should Trump be charged with a crime in this case?

On first glance, a central message seems to be strong and continuing support for Trump — because a majority of Republicans said that the charges were not serious. Most Republicans also said that he should not have been charged with a crime and that the indictment was politically motivated.

Media headlines have emphasized these pro-Trump majorities. At a dinner with Democratic donors this week, Jill Biden said that she had just read one of these headlines and found it “a little shocking.” Republican voters, Biden said, “don’t care about the indictment.”

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To be clear, Trump’s enduring support among Republicans is an important story. If it continues, he is likely to become the party’s nominee. That support is a sign that political polarization in the U.S. has become so intense that most Republican voters appear to care more about loyalty to Trump than about the possibility that he damaged national security by allowing sensitive intelligence to circulate.

But the existence of an enduring pro-Trump Republican majority is not the only important conclusion from the recent polls. A couple of subtler patterns in the data are more worrisome for Trump.

A decisive minority?

First, look at the relative sizes of the minority opinions in each category in that chart above: There are considerably more Republicans who consider the charges serious than Democrats or independents who do not think they’re serious. The indictment divides Republicans more than it divides Democrats.

A basic lesson of politics is that you win when the public debate is focused on issues that divide your opponent’s supporters and unite yours. Affirmative action, for example, is a problematic topic for the Democratic Party, even though most of its voters support the policy, because there are more Democrats who oppose it than Republicans who support it. (The Times recently explained how this dynamic led to a landslide defeat for an affirmative-action referendum in California.) For similar reasons, undocumented immigration creates political trouble for Democrats.

Problematic subjects for the Republican Party, on the other hand, include health care access, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage and, especially, abortion bans. The recent polls show that Trump’s behavior also falls into this category.  Republicans who think he should have been charged with a crime outnumber Democrats who think he should not have been. “Trump splits the party,” says Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist who writes for Bloomberg Opinion. “No, not evenly, but even an 80/20 split is a real split.”

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Another problematic sign for Trump is that the number of Republicans bothered by his legal problems seems to be growing. So is the number among independents. More voters are bothered by the case against him — on charges of taking classified material and trying to conceal that he did — than by the earlier New York State charges related to hush money for a sexual encounter:

Share of Americans who think the charges against Trump in each indictment are serious

The bottom line

The 2024 election is still almost a year and a half away, and the prosecutors trying to hold Trump accountable will need to keep making their case not only in courtrooms but also to the public if they hope to convince most Americans of the seriousness of the charges. But those prosecutors do not need to convince most Republicans in order to succeed.

Just look at what happened in the 2022 midterm elections. A small slice of Republican voters was unhappy enough with Trump’s anti-democratic behavior (and the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling) to defect from the party, helping Democrats keep control of the Senate. The last two presidential elections offer a similar case study: Trump lost the presidency in 2020 partly because 11 percent of typical Republican voters supported Joe Biden, up from 9 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to Catalist, a data firm.

Fifty percent isn’t the only number that matters when you’re looking at a subgroups in poll. Small shifts within each party can determine election outcomes.

Related: “On the night Mr. Trump announced his indictment, the wagons were circled” on Fox News, Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, wrote.“But after the indictment was released, the conversation became more mixed.”

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