Pool photo by Steven Hirsch

From the Center

For all of us who knew that it would be impossible for Donald Trump to be elected president after the Access Hollywood video became public in 2016, this should be a moment for caution. But while it’s impossible to predict whether his conviction will change the outcome of this year’s election, it’s a bit easier to see some of the ways it might affect the campaign between now and November.

Trump will continue to use the verdict to motivate his base, and he has already been extremely successful in attracting an immense fundraising windfall during the weeks of his trial and an even greater bonanza since the jury’s verdict. But Trump’s supporters were already extremely motivated. So while this will help the campaign bring in dollars, Trump’s challenge has always been expanding his support beyond his committed loyalists. This is going to make that task much harder.

While Trump and his strongest allies have mounted a full-throated attack against the judge and the judicial system, Republican congressional candidates running in competitive races have been much more circumspect. Unlike their colleagues running for safe seats or in deep-red states, these swing-district candidates don’t have the luxury of relying solely on GOP loyalists to win their campaigns. So with only a few exceptions, most down-ticket Republicans facing difficult campaigns are keeping their heads down until there is more evidence how centrist voters will react to Trump’s situation.

Early polling is inconclusive. A Reuters poll taken in the first two days after the trial’s conclusion showed that 10 percent of Republicans said they would be less likely to support Trump after the verdict. But that’s at a time when Trump’s excesses have dominated news coverage. It's entirely possible that as those voters weigh their discomfort with Trump’s conduct against the issues that originally convinced them to choose the GOP, many of them will reassess their original reaction. Trump’s conviction will persuade some former Nikki Haley supporters to either switch sides or stay home. But there’s no way to know yet how sizable a group that will turn out to be.

But winning back those straying Republicans is only part of Trump’s challenge. That same Reuters poll found that a sizable 25 percent of independents were now less likely to vote for him. Some of them will drift back in the former president’s direction when the campaign focuses in other topics, too, but the pull on them to align with Trump will be less intense than for GOP voters. 

It is also worth noting that Trump’s “us against them” message has some appeal beyond Republican ranks, as 18 percent of these independents said the verdict would make them more likely to vote for him. So while unaligned voters are moving away from Trump in the wake of his conviction, the margin of that trend is not large.

If Trump maintains the backing of most of his base and if Joe Biden achieves some gains among swing voters, the more important question is whether Biden can utilize this decision to motivate his own party’s base. Democratic progressives have been unhappy with the president on many issues throughout his presidency, and that dissatisfaction has grown much louder over the months of the Gaza War. 

Those unhappy leftists frequently say that they see little difference between the two candidates and warn that they might opt for a third-party candidate or stay home altogether. The Biden campaign’s task is now to convince them that preventing a convicted felon from becoming president is worth their time and effort.

Biden still faces tremendous obstacles in his efforts to win back young people, voters from minority communities, and other progressives. It was notable that the day after Trump was found guilty, Biden held a news conference to announce a new cease-fire proposal for Israel and Hamas. But Trump’s conviction should serve as a strong reminder that even though they are underwhelmed by Biden’s presidency, Trump would be even less acceptable to them.

This argument certainly does not guarantee a Biden victory, but it does provide the president with another tool in his toolbox as he attempts to reconstruct the rickety coalition that elected him four years ago. For his part, Trump will need a message beyond "crooked judge" and "rigged trial" to successfully reach beyond his base. The first presidential debate is just a few weeks away. His focus that night will tell us a great deal about his prospects for another term in office.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Steven Hirsch