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Trump Indictment Puts Republicans in An Impossible Situation

Newsweek 2023-03-31 Katherine Fung
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek on February 26, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. CPAC, which began in 1974, is an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials. © Provided by Newsweek Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek on February 26, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. CPAC, which began in 1974, is an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials.

Former President Donald Trump's indictment is likely to give him a boost in the polls, sending him even further ahead of the Republican 2024 pack than he already is, but it could come back to bite him if he gets the GOP nomination.

On Thursday, Trump became the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges after a grand jury in Manhattan hit him with about 30 charges in relation to the alleged hush money payments he made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

While the indictment is less than positive from a legal standpoint, political experts say it's not all bad news for the former president. Trump has already portrayed the years-long investigation from the Manhattan's district attorney's office as a politically motivated "witch hunt" and urged his supporters to protest his arrest. An official indictment will give Republican voters, even those who aren't staunch Trump fans, a reason to rally behind Trump.


Even as more candidates have jumped into the GOP primaries, Trump has remained the frontrunner by a long shot. The only potential candidate that has posed a real threat to the former president is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who still trails slightly behind Trump in most polls and who has yet to announce an official 2024 bid.

The national Republican Party may have wanted to push Trump out of the primaries with another leading candidate, but the criminal charges may make it near impossible. But while the latest developments give Trump "a shot in the arm, financially and support, with conservatives," as well as added momentum in the primaries, GOP strategist Matt Klink told Newsweek that the indictment will only hurt him with "the all-important independent vote."

"It is hard for me to imagine that the recent indictments, or future indictments, will increase Trump's appeal with swing voters or moderate Republicans," political strategist Jay Townsend agreed. Townsend told Newsweek that it will be crucial to look at how the indictment impacts voters in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and possibly North Carolina.

A Marist poll conducted last week found that while Trump has broad Republican support, fewer independent voters are on his side when it comes to the investigations into the former president.

The survey found that while 80 percent of Republicans believe the various investigations into Trump are a "witch hunt," 51 percent of independent voters say the probes are fair. More than three-quarters of GOP voters want to see Trump back in the White House, but 64 percent of independents say they don't want him to be president again.

The Pew Research Center found that in 2016, Trump benefited from the 43 percent support he received from independents (Democrat Hillary Clinton saw 42 percent support). But while those voters helped lead Trump to his presidential victory in 2016, they ended up playing a key role in President Joe Biden's 2020 win. Among independent voters, Biden led Trump by 52 percent to 43 percent in the 2020 election, according to Pew Research Center.

"[Trump] needs to expand his voter universe if he has any hope of winning in 2024," Klink said. "This indictment and possibly as many as three others hurt and likely fatally wound his ability to accomplish that."

Republican consultant Alex Patton agreed, telling Newsweek that while Thursday's indictment will lead to a "rally-around-the-flag moment for Trump," much of that boost will depend on other looming indictments. Trump is also being investigated by federal authorities and officials in Fulton County, Georgia.

"Multiple indictments compound and are more difficult to explain away, but the timing of additional indictments overlaid with the primary calendar will be key," Patton said.

Patton said that while the GOP currently shows no signs of being swayed by the indictment, "MAGA Trumpism has not played well in the past." The historical success of Trump's messaging, compounded with the new criminal charges, "will not play well with swing voters or independents."

During the midterms, a number of Trump's endorsed candidates—including Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters—won their Republican primaries over their establishment challengers, but failed to win in the general when up against a Democrat.

"In general, voters respond to optimism. Trump's re-elect campaign so far is a re-litigation of all MAGA's past grievances that have caused the GOP to lose the past several cycles," he said. "But it looks like the GOP can't help itself but to touch the hot stove—yet again—before we change or try something new."

Klink said although much remains to be determined given that Trump's indictment marks the first of its kind, "indictments, even frivolous and politically motivated indictments, are never good."

"The Trump team can try to spin it in a positive way but it's another reason for more voters to turn away from President Trump," Klink said.

Newsweek reached out to the GOP for comment.

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