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Will Trump's indictment hurt his campaign? Or his rivals? The 2024 race has turned on its head

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/31/2023 David Jackson, Phillip M. Bailey and Mabinty Quarshie, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – The 2024 Republican presidential aspirants now have to game out a contest no candidate has ever faced: a front-runner – and former president – under criminal indictment.

While Donald Trump amps up a campaign of vilification against prosecutors, rivals like Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence are defending him and denouncing the Manhattan district attorney. But they're also counting on tiring of all the "drama" surrounding the former president.

Trump may well benefit politically in the short term with GOP primary voters, according to campaign aides and political analysts.

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Others wonder what future implications – with at least three other ongoing investigations of Trump and a potential trial in New York City – will do to his political standing down the line.

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Help Trump? Hurt Trump? Both? 

Criminal charges, spurious or not, could actually help Trump in Republican primaries, analysts and officials said, but hurt him in a general election with independent and nonparty voters.

"The people who say they support (Trump) are not going to break from him because a prosecutor in New York City or Atlanta indicted him," said Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University and author of a new book, "Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.''

“What’s unclear within the Republican field is, how does an indictment play?" Dallek said. "Does it expand his support among Republicans, or does it strengthen his critics' argument that he is a weaker general-election candidate?"

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Trump's political strategy 

After news of the indictment broke, Trump amped up a long-developed strategy: Attack the prosecutors, attack the case, attack Republicans who don't support him (particularly other president candidates). Trump also has urged supporters to protest the whole thing, triggering fears of violence in this now-unprecedented campaign.

This will be a long-running theme. It could well be months before Trump is actually tried in New York. He also remains under investigation in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta over the handling of classified documents, efforts to overturn the 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden, and the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

What are DeSantis, Haley, Pence doing?

So far, Trump's major rivals – including DeSantis, Haley, and Pence – are defending the former president and more or less taking a wait-and-see approach.

They are also suggesting (or hoping) that voters will tire of Trump and his legal troubles, which would grind down his political strength.

DeSantis, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon, described the indictment as "the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda." The Florida governor, while not attacking Trump directly, has also hit his chaotic leadership style, telling Fox Nation: "The way we run the government I think is no daily drama, focus on the big picture and put points on the board."

Haley told Fox News that the indictment is "more about revenge than it is about justice." The former governor has also wondered aloud about Republican voters who weren't crazy about Trump in the first place.

During a town hall in New Hampshire this week, Haley said Trump has a strong base that adds up to 25% of the electorate – so that means "there are 75% other Republicans there that are looking for a place to be."

As Trump's former vice president, Pence, who is considering a 2024 campaign of his own, is in a unique position: Federal prosecutors investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection are trying to get him to testify against Trump.

In the meantime, Pence told CNN that the indictment is an "outrage" but added that no voter has asked about Trump's legal troubles. "It's one more example of the kind of drama that captures Washington, D.C., and makes it impossible for us to solve the problems," he said.

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President Donald Trump arrives with Vice President Mike Pence to speak about coronavirus testing during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in September 2020. © Evan Vucci, AP President Donald Trump arrives with Vice President Mike Pence to speak about coronavirus testing during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in September 2020.

How to deal with a Trump indictment 

Watching events unfold in real time, campaign aides and political analysts said they doubt Trump's troubles will cut much into his base – the questions are how big of a base remains and what other Republican voters will do as the former president is actually put on trial.

That could well turn into a day-to-day thing, said campaign aides and political analysts.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: Trump should quit 2024 presidential race if indictedIs

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Can Trump run for president if indicted? Yes

One thing for sure: Trump will not quit campaigning while under indictment.

"I won’t even think about leaving,” Trump said earlier this month.  “Probably, it’ll enhance my numbers."

Trump seeks the Republican presidential nomination, and there's no party rule to prohibit an indicted person from entering primaries. 

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How will a Trump trial affect 2024? No one knows for sure  

Campaign officials said they are reluctant to discuss their strategies because so much depends on something unknowable: actual voters' reaction to a Trump indictment.

Dallek, the political historian at George Washington University, said it already is unusual for a former president to run again, but facing criminal prosecution adds an unprecedented wrinkle for any GOP campaign.

"The dilemma is that they nominate Trump, they get Trump," he said. "That's a huge risk in all kinds of ways, not just for the country and democracy but also for their prospects politically."

Will many Republicans move off Trump in discernible numbers? Will more rally around him in defiance? And how long will those reactions last? It could well be many months before Trump is tried in court.

While campaigns are loathe to discuss their options, some Republicans said the indictments may wind up helping Trump.

GOP consultants and strategists told USA TODAY indictments against Trump will not change his front-runner status in the race. It may even bolster his approval with GOP primary voters. 

"Donald Trump’s numbers will go up and everyone else will go down," said pollster Frank Luntz. "Republicans will see this as victimization, and they will rally behind him.

"Donald Trump does a better job of milking difficult political situation than any politician I’ve ever seen."

Trump's Groundhog Day?

Likewise, Ford O'Connell, a Trump surrogate in 2020 based in Florida, said indictments will not sway Trump supporters. 

“Republican primary voters have been through numerous special counsels. So the idea that the walls are now suddenly closing in after 75 groundhog days just kind of that doesn't resonate,” O'Connell said.

“Remember, Trump is a known commodity. They’ve known since 2015 what they're going to get with Trump. And I think that that's the important part." 

Watching Trump's polls

Brian Kirwin, a Republican consultant with decades of experience in Virginia, said potential GOP candidates are likely taking a wait-and-see approach – and keeping a sharp eye on Republican polls and focus groups.

"I think they're watching the polls and seeing if any of the top-tier candidates start to falter," Kirwin said. "And then they have their organization they can snap their fingers, in plenty of time, to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire and put things together fast." 

Trump and DeSantis have led several polls of potential 2024 candidates.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll showed 44% of Iowa Republican voters had a very favorable view of Trump for the Republican nomination, and 42% said the same for DeSantis. Seventeen percent of those surveyed had a very favorable view of Pence, and 16% said the same for Haley. 

A lot of 'Trump turmoil'

Other Republicans said a steady drip-drip-drip of allegations will take a toll on Trump over the long term, especially if he is put on trial in such a public manner.

"I know he's going to say that they're politically motivated and all of those things," former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told USA TODAY. "But the fact is, there's just a lot of turmoil out there with the number of investigations going on."

Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump political strategist who has conducted numerous focus groups of Republican voters, said it's impossible to predict what will happen. But she said it seems that there will be more indictments, and "all the focus will be on Trump."

Trump could well be the Republican nominee, she said, "but he’ll be a terrible general-election candidate. His legal woes making him even more toxic to swing voters who already hate him."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Trump's indictment hurt his campaign? Or his rivals? The 2024 race has turned on its head



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