What Trump’s guilty verdict means for the 2024 election

Home US & World What Trump’s guilty verdict means for the 2024 election
What Trump’s guilty verdict means for the 2024 election

Anthony Zurcher,North America correspondent

Getty Images Donald Trump claps as a crowd of supporters cheer behind him.Getty Images

Donald Trump has campaigned on his claim he is being unfairly prosecuted

Donald Trump’s criminal conviction presents a remarkable collection of historic firsts.

He’s the first former US president to be found guilty of a felony. He’s the first presumptive major-party nominee to become a convicted felon as well.

The case against Trump also was a novel application of state and federal fraud and campaign finance laws, dealing with a hush-money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election.

While Trump plans his appeal and awaits a sentence that might include prison time and a hefty fine, it’s not too early to consider the potential political fallout from his conviction.

That may not be easy, however.

“We often look to history to find some kind of hint of what’s going to happen,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “But there is nothing in the record that comes even close to this.”

Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination in primary contests earlier this year and is set to head the party ticket – along with his vice-presidential pick – when the party holds its national convention in July. Polls indicate he is in a statistical dead heat with President Joe Biden and maintains a slight edge in many key swing states that will decide the election.

But those surveys also provide evidence that this conviction might change all of that.

In exit polls conducted during those Republican primaries this winter, double-digit numbers of voters said that they would not vote for the former president if he were convicted of a felony. Thirty-two percent of Republican voters in North Carolina’s March primary said Trump would not be fit for the presidency if convicted.

An April survey by Ipsos and ABC News found that 16% of those backing Trump would reconsider their support in such a situation.

Those were hypothetical convictions, however.

The former president faces three other criminal cases – involving his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House. All are indefinitely delayed, leaving this guilty verdict as the only certain result this year.

Doug Schoen, a pollster who worked with Democratic President Bill Clinton and independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says American voters may feel differently based on this specific case.

“While it’s not a great thing to be convicted of a crime, what voters will be thinking about in November is inflation, the southern border, competition with China and Russia and the money that is being spent on Israel and Ukraine.”

He adds that this conviction, because it dealt with events that took place eight years ago, will not pack the same political punch as the type of convictions voters may have been imagining when polled earlier this year.

Even a slight drop in Trump’s support, however, might be enough to matter in the kind of razor-thin race this presidential contest could become. If a few thousand voters who would have otherwise backed the former president stay home in a key state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, it could make all the difference.

“I do think it will have an impact and damage him as a candidate,” says Ariel Hill-Davis, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, a group that has sought to move the party away from Trump.

She says younger voters and those who are college-educated and live in the suburbs have been concerned about Trump’s demeanour and his approach to governing.

“Those voters are really hesitant to get back in line with the Republican Party headed by Donald Trump,” she says. “The guilty verdict is going to further shore up those concerns.”

What each side said in Trump trial closing arguments

For eight years, experts and opponents have been predicting Trump’s impending political collapse, only to be proven wrong. His 2016 presidential campaign was punctuated by missteps and scandals that would have felled a typical politician, including Trump’s recorded Access Hollywood conversation about groping women that was referenced multiple times in his hush-money trial.

Mr Trump’s party largely stuck with him through two impeachments and the chaotic end of his presidency, during which the US Capitol was attacked by a mob of his supporters.

All this did not prevent the former president from undertaking a political revival that has put him in position to win back the White House in November.

“It’s axiomatic at this point, but Trump’s continued support, despite the kind of scandal that would have scuttled literally any other previous candidate in American history, is truly astounding,” says Mr Engel.

This historic criminal conviction may prove to be different – particularly if Trump’s appeals fail and he faces the prospect of prison.

Or it could just be the latest in a long series of seemingly disruptive events that, in hindsight, have only been bumps on Trump’s path to power.

Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University, has constructed a political model that has successfully predicted the winner of every presidential race since 1984. He concedes, however, that Trump’s criminal conviction could be the kind of “cataclysmic and unprecedented” twist that throws the model for a loop and changes the course of history.

“History books will record this as a truly extraordinary, unprecedented event, but a lot will depend on what happens afterwards,” he says.

The ultimate judgement on the importance of Trump’s conviction will come at the hands of voters in November. If the former president is defeated, his guilty verdict is likely to be viewed as one of the reasons why.

If he wins, it may become just a footnote to Trump’s tumultuous yet consequential political career.

“History is written by the winners, as we all know,” Mr Engel says.

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