A version of this story appears in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Here is an often-repeated claim you’ll hear from reporters and analysts: Former President Donald Trump’s control over the Republican primary field solidified not in spite of, but because of, his four criminal indictments.
It is a catch-22; the effort to seek accountability for his effort to stay in power despite his 2020 election loss has actually made him more politically powerful in the GOP heading into 2024.
I went to CNN’s senior data reporter, Harry Enten, for his assessment of whether polling data bears out the claim. Did indicting Trump put him on a glide path to the Republican nomination?
Enten’s thoughts on that point are below. But my main takeaway from our conversation actually has to do with his compelling argument that in a potential general election rematch, both President Joe Biden and Trump could be so unpopular that they need each other in order to have a chance at winning.
It’s a symbiotic, needs-based relationship to make most Americans groan on their way to the voting booth. Can’t wait for 2024!
Our full conversation, conducted by email, is below.
WOLF: I have heard reporters suggest that Trump’s hold on the Republican nomination was strengthened by his four indictments. Is there data to support that?
ENTEN: There’s actually been a lot of debate about this in polling, polling analysis and political science circles. What we know is Trump is ahead by more now than he was at the beginning of the year. The question is when exactly did that jump in the polls occur?
Some polls (such as Fox News) seem to indicate it happened largely before any of the indictments occurred. Others (such as Quinnipiac University) seem to show a large jump post-indictment.
On the whole, the average of polling indicates Trump did see a small bump (somewhere roughly between 5 and 10 points) in his primary polling after the first indictment in New York.
To be clear, Trump would likely still be well ahead without any indictment bump. It’s just that he’d be in the mid- to high-40s instead of the low- to mid-50s.
WOLF: Trump has been indicted four separate times:
Is there anything to suggest that one or another of these indictments had a larger or smaller effect on his standing?
ENTEN: You’ll notice in my previous answer I specifically mentioned New York. I haven’t seen any demonstrable evidence that any other indictment except the first one (maybe) gave Trump a boost. It doesn’t appear that any of the other indictments hurt his standing though.
I will further point out that I’m talking about polling here. There’s been any number of articles written about Trump pulling in more fundraising after the different indictments. That doesn’t seem to have stopped, regardless of the charges.
WOLF: Trump’s DC trial will get underway on March 4, the day before Super Tuesday. Is there any way for the outcome of these trials to affect the Republican primary?
ENTEN: Funny enough, I was talking about this the other day with someone. I think the question is almost impossible to answer because this is (pardon me for saying) unprecedented. What we know from the data is that Republicans think the charges are politically motivated and haven’t moved Trump’s polling lead.
Keep in mind Trump is not reliant on traditional campaigning in the way you might remember some candidates of past years doing retail campaigning. He’s going to dominate the media landscape and going to leave little media oxygen for the other GOP candidates.
The only thing I can think of really shifting things would be a possible conviction, but I doubt any of the cases will move fast enough for that to happen.
WOLF: Has a person with a Trump-level polling lead one year before Election Day ever blown it and not won the party’s nomination?
ENTEN: The answer here is no, as measured by the margin between the leading candidate (Trump) and the candidate in second (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis). Trump’s up by 40 points or so, which is one of the largest leads ever at this point.
If you look at Trump’s share of the vote (in the 50s), then you could make the case that Ted Kennedy (who was in the 50s) blew his advantage over incumbent Jimmy Carter at this point.
The Kennedy-Carter comparison to this year is an interesting one in so far as it involved an incumbent, and Trump, it could be argued, is a quasi-incumbent. Of course, in that case, it was the incumbent who made the comeback.
WOLF: My impression is that Republican voters have largely come around to agree with Trump, despite the facts, that he won the 2020 election. Is that the kind of perception these trials could change? In other words, is a conviction the kind of thing that could break what seems like an intractable partisan divide?
ENTEN: Again, we’re in unprecedented times, so I’ll never say never.
I’ll give you this one, though. A CNN/SSRS poll from earlier this year asked whether Trump should drop out of the race if convicted of a federal crime. The vast majority of his own supporters (88%) said no he shouldn’t. Even most Republicans (58%) said he shouldn’t.
Any changes to the percentage of Republicans who think he didn’t win in 2020 (even if that is a false belief) would likely be minimal, despite any conviction.
WOLF: I’ve seen you argue that Trump would be very competitive in a general election matchup with Biden. But I wonder how the indictments have affected the outlook of independent voters?
ENTEN: Independent voters like neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump. They’ll be, at this point, making the choice between the lesser of two evils. The indictments didn’t help Trump amongst this group, but did they hurt?
If you look at polls conducted by Quinnipiac, Marist and Fox in August, Trump was ahead of Biden by 1 point on average (well within the margin of error).
If you look at the average of polls conducted by Quinnipiac (the only one of these pollsters in the field) before the first indictment, Trump was ahead of Biden by 1 point on average.
So I don’t see any real impact (for now) on the metric that I feel is most important in answering your question.
WOLF: Finally, regarding Joe Biden … there are stories all over the place about how voters think he’s too old, they aren’t excited about him, etc. What does the historical polling data suggest about a president in his position? What tea leaves are you reading about him?
ENTEN: General election polling at this point has not been predictive. Otherwise, Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan would have been neck and neck in the 1984 election, which Reagan won in a blowout.
The reason Reagan ran away with the election is because he is one of a number of presidents who saw boosts in their approval ratings from now until the election (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Reagan, etc.).
But a president with an approval rating where Biden’s is right now on Election Day is not a president in a strong position. In fact, every president with his approval rating or worse has lost.
But I’m honestly not sure any of those historical analogies matter because Trump is so unpopular. This is ultimately the great statistical puzzle of the 2024 election. Biden likely can only win going up against a candidate as unpopular as Trump. Trump likely can only win going up against a candidate as unpopular as Biden.
So who wins that matchup? If you know the answer to that one, you should also tell me who wins this year’s Super Bowl.