Matt Rourke/AP

From the Center

The most important stop on the path to the Republican presidential nomination this year is not Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. Rather, just as the unique political and cultural force that is Donald Trump has remade the GOP ideologically, demographically and structurally, he has also made the traditional primary calendar almost irrelevant. While his opponents have scrambled to visit as many diners, coffee shops and living rooms as possible in those early states, Trump’s most valuable time has instead been spent in the various courtrooms where charges have been filed against him for a lengthy and familiar list of his alleged transgressions.

Trump has famously been charged in four separate felony cases in New York, Washington, Atlanta and Miami, and he also faces lawsuits in a number of other cases as well. When these legal challenges began to pile up a couple of years ago, many political veterans assumed that they could have a debilitating effect on his campaign. They pointed out that the continuous reminders of Trump’s most controversial behavior would discourage many of his supporters, and the logistical challenges of attending court hearings and visiting traditional campaign venues would place him at a considerable competitive disadvantage.

But just the opposite has happened. These legal fights have not inhibited Trump’s most loyal backers but have energized them. His attendance at these trials has not detracted from his time on the trail but has provided a more visible and more motivating platform than most candidates could hope to find in more traditional campaign venues. What appeared to be an uphill fight after the midterm elections for the former president to reclaim his party’s nomination now has the potential to become a landslide for him.

While there have certainly been other factors to Trump’s remarkable revival, there’s no question that his court fights have been an immense benefit to him. Many Republican voters, who were put off by his behavior in the aftermath of the 2020 campaign and disappointed in the results of the 2022 midterm elections, believed his argument that the charges against him were politically motivated and rallied to his side. They agreed that the challenges he faced were motivated by a political and cultural elite that opposed him—and them—politically, and they saw their support of him as a necessary way to protect himself against those same forces.

American history is replete with examples of the so-called “rally-round-the-flag” effect, when voters become motivated in support of leaders who they see protecting their interests during times of war. But seeing the same dynamic in play in reaction not to a foreign aggressor but to a courtroom battle is unprecedented, and Trump’s success is largely predicated on his ability to persuade Republicans who had tired of his conduct to return to his side. His opponents, most of whom had hoped to dethrone him without aggressively attacking his excesses, never had a chance.

DeSantis, whose immense margin of victory in his 2022 re-election campaign provided a compelling contrast with the defeat of many Trump-supported candidates, was anointed early on as Trump’s most likely successor. While his candidacy suffered from too many personal and strategic flaws to list here, DeSantis himself has pointed out the unanticipated challenge that Trump’s court cases presented. The rest of the GOP field felt equally pressured to criticize the trials, leaving them in the uneasy position of defending Trump legally while attempting to criticize him politically.

But what has been an unalloyed benefit to Trump in the primary may present a more significant obstacle to him in a general election rematch against Joe Biden. Polls of Iowa caucus-goers showed that roughly 30 percent of them would not vote for Trump if he is convicted of one or more charges before the election, and a number of national surveys have shown similar results. That’s not enough to derail a primary campaign, but potentially sufficient to swing closely-fought swing states in the fall.

In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Trump was so confident of the political benefits of these legal battles that he actually chose to attend trials where his presence was not required. While that savvy strategy has paid off for him throughout the primary season, his campaign will almost certainly want to make other scheduling decisions in the general election.

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:

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: Matt Rourke/AP