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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Shift in Public Opinion About Trump’s ‘Criminality’?

An excerpt from “Public Opinion About Trump’s Criminality Is Shifting—a Bit” by John Cassidy at the New Yorker:

Will the accumulation of charges and evidence, and maybe even actual trials, gradually turn opinion decisively against the former President, especially among voters who aren’t highly partisan? Will things swing in his favor? Or will things stay where they are now, with views highly polarized on partisan lines?

In thinking about these questions, a good place to start is the latest opinion survey from Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists that monitors threats to democracy. The survey, which was published last week, was carried out before the latest charges against Trump were filed. On the face of things, it confirmed the familiar picture that, when it comes to anything having to do with the former President, universally acknowledged truths hardly exist. Fewer than one in six Republican voters said they believed that Trump had committed crimes in trying to overturn the 2020 election, in his actions before the January 6th riots, or in making hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. A few more Republicans said they believed that he committed a crime in the classified-documents case, but the total was still only one in four. By contrast, at least three in four Democrats believe that Trump committed crimes in each of these instances, the results indicated.

Among self-identified independents who don’t lean toward either party, the survey yielded more ambiguous results. Fewer than half of these respondents—between thirty-seven per cent and forty-six per cent, depending on the specific cases—said they believed that Trump had committed a crime. And about half of these respondents said that the charges were politically motivated. But, although these findings seem encouraging for Trump and his supporters, the survey also found that the number of independents who believe that Trump has done something criminal is growing, especially in relation to the classified-documents case. In a Bright Line Watch survey carried out last October, thirty-four per cent of independents said that a crime had been committed in that case. In the latest poll, that number had grown to forty-six per cent.

This suggests that, as prosecutors release more details of the charges and evidence against Trump, opinion is slowly shifting against him among less partisan voters. The survey even showed evidence of movement among Republicans. Since last October, the percentage of Republicans who said they believed that Trump had committed a crime in handling classified documents rose fromnine to twenty-five. “We have to keep two things in mind at the same time,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who co-founded Bright Line Watch, told me on Monday. “On the one hand, the public is incredibly polarized on these cases. On the other hand, the new evidence does seem to be moving the needle.”

In a world of filter bubbles and willful propagating of misinformation, this shift can be viewed as an encouraging development. It’s evident in other recent polls, too. Last week, a survey from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College indicated that the percentage of Republicans who believe that Trump has “done nothing wrong” has dropped from fifty per cent to forty-one per cent since June. Evidently, public opinion isn’t set in stone. “Even among Republicans, it does seem like information is being taken in,” Nyhan noted.

However, he emphasized that there were two caveats to this interpretation. Regardless of Republicans’ views about the charges against Trump, there is still no evidence in the Bright Line survey that large numbers of G.O.P. voters will refuse to support him, Nyhan said. This finding is confirmed by other polls: in a New York Times/Siena College poll that was released on Monday, seventy-one per cent of Republicans agreed with the statement that, in relation to the ongoing investigations, “Republicans need to stand behind Trump,” and fifty-eight percent said that they would vote for him in the primary if it were held today.

Nyhan’s second caveat was that the classified-documents case might be special, because the evidence attached to it is so vivid and compelling. In their indictments and other court documents, the federal prosecutors have included photographs of classified documents strewn around Trump’s compound at Mar-a-Lago, and statements from his own lawyers and employees. “I’m cautious about anticipating the same type of movement we’ve seen in the documents case in the 2020-election cases,” Nyhan said. “I think those cases may play as rehashing old issues and evidence that is familiar to people. If it comes down to secondhand accounts of complicated political events, it is easy enough to talk people into holding with their partisan preconceptions.”

Nyhan’s point is well-taken. Together with the recent survey findings, it underscores the importance of the special counsel Jack Smith and the Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, laying out compelling evidence if they indict Trump on charges relating to the 2020 election and January 6th. Regardless of how strong these cases are, they will never persuade Trump diehards. (When he remarked, in January, 2016, that voters would support him if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he was right.) But there is now at least some evidence that the public at large is more open to reason and evidence. With the next act of the Trump story set to unfold, this offers some ground for cautious optimism.”

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