Will the Trump Guilty Verdict Make a Difference to Enough Voters to Affect the Election's Outcome?

Polling over the last several months revealed some number of voters who said they would likely vote for Donald Trump for President in November but that a criminal conviction could change their minds. People who said such things were, by definition, swing voters. No one who was planning not to vote for Trump would change their mind and support him because he was convicted of 34 counts of felony falsification of documents. Well, perhaps not no one. I've never understood Trump's appeal to anyone. I suppose that voting for Trump because he's a felon is not that much crazier than voting for him because he physically hugs flags.

How many of those people who said they would change their mind and not cast ballots for Trump based on a conviction were both sincere and accurately projecting their conduct? Not all, surely. Perhaps not even most. But in a close election, even a small shift could be the difference.

There is reason to believe that James Comey's announcement on the eve of the 2016 election that he was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails provided just enough of a motive for people who were otherwise planning to vote for Clinton to switch to Trump, vote for a third-party candidate, or stay home to swing the election. If the possibility of a criminal indictment can shift tens of thousands of votes (which is all that is needed in swing states), surely an actual conviction makes a difference.

Or does it? Part of the problem with Comey's announcement was that it came just 11 days before Election Day and so was reasonably fresh in voters' minds due to recency bias. There are still over five months before Election Day 2024. True, voters will be reminded of Trump's felonious status when he is sentenced in July, but that's still going to be three and a half months before Election Day. If, as now seems likely, none of the three other criminal cases pending against Trump has gone to trial by November, and given the press's tendency to be distracted by shiny objects, by the time of the election, Trump's conviction could simply be seen as old news. First former President to be convicted of a felony; first President to be impeached twice; yada yada yada.

Furthermore, the sentencing could actually shift the narrative towards Trump. I've read through a number of the leading reported cases involving violations of the NYS statute Trump was found guilty of violating (34 times). People have been sentenced to prison for this crime, which, as a class E felony, carries a maximum sentence of imprisonment for four years--the exact same duration as a Presidential term! However, as a first offender, it is unlikely that Trump would be sentenced for that long. Indeed, there is reason to think that Judge Merchan--who bent over backwards not to jail Trump for contempt when he repeatedly violated the gag order--would impose only a fine and probation. At that point, you can be sure that Trump and his supporters throughout the right-wing-o-verse would say that the lack of a prison sentence--even from a "corrupt" judge--shows that there was "no crime."

Thus, there are reasons to think that whatever negative impact Trump's conviction has on his standing with swing voters would dissipate by Election Day. Meanwhile, one must take account of the conviction's impact on turnout. The conviction, like each of the sets of criminal indictments, motivates Trump's supporters to go to the polls. It is further evidence that Trump is being hounded by a "rigged" "witch hunt." To be sure, the sort of person who believes such things was already highly motivated to vote, but we are discussing marginal impacts here. The conviction provides a bit more motivation for donations and other efforts to support Trump.

What about the impact on Democrats? I suspect it will be motivating, but somewhat less so than for Republicans. The chief worry for the Biden campaign is lack of enthusiasm among people who ought to be his base voters. If someone wasn't going to vote for Biden because they thought he's too old or hasn't been doing enough to restrain Israel's war in Gaza or some other policy reason, it's hard to see why Trump's conviction makes a difference. Most of those alienated voters were planning to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate, so additional negative information about Trump probably doesn't do very much. The most affirmative help Biden gets from the Trump conviction probably runs through party activists, who are less demoralized today than they were at this time yesterday, and thus motivated to work a bit harder.

How does all of this shake out? We will never know for sure, because we're asking a counterfactual question. Expect breathless news coverage of polls conducted over the next few days. Little to no change in the polling from before the conviction will garner headlines like "Trump is a Felon to Jurors but Teflon to Voters" and would in fact be indicative that the conviction will have no impact or possibly even help Trump (as the motivation for his base would be a larger factor than the nonexistent impact on swing voters). However, while a swing towards Biden will provide headline fodder such as "Swing Voters Chastened by Trump Felony Conviction," my analysis in today's essay suggests that could be fleeting.

Bottom line: My best guess is that Trump's felony conviction makes it slightly less likely that he will win the election than he would have been if there had been an acquittal or hung jury, but anyone making contingency plans to emigrate from Gilead in January would be prudent to keep at it.