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Reviews | Prison time is the real factor in the impact of Trump verdicts on 2024

Reviews |  Prison time is the real factor in the impact of Trump verdicts on 2024
Reviews |  Prison time is the real factor in the impact of Trump verdicts on 2024

 


People aren't always good at predicting their own behavior. We know what we think and feel in the moment, but are much less good at guessing how we will react to different conditions in the future.

I think of it all the time as a pollster thinking about how to ask people questions that will reveal what they truly think and feel. If you ask me what I'm doing right now, I would say I'm writing this essay and that would be an accurate answer. If you asked me if I would make pasta for dinner later this week if I knew pasta sauce was on sale at the grocery store, my answer would be less specific. Am I even going to want pasta?

Likewise, if you ask voters today what they think about Donald Trump, believe me, they know. Voters' attitudes toward Mr. Trump and his personal character have long been established. But asking voters what they might do in the future when faced with an unprecedented change in circumstances, such as sentencing a major presidential candidate to prison, is fraught with uncertainty.

As a result, one of my biggest pet peeves as a pollster is the more or less likely question in the survey. In this type of question, respondents are asked whether a certain hypothetical situation or information would make them more or less likely to take a future action. This is often used to test campaign and political message strategy and takes the following form: If you knew that candidate A voted to raise taxes, would that make you more or less likely to vote for him?

In Trump's legal dramas, this type of question has been a favorite of pollsters, with findings like this last week: One in ten Republicans are less likely to vote for Trump after a guilty verdict. Every time I see this kind of headline, I wonder if one in ten Republicans ever voted for Mr. Trump anyway, or if they were never-Trump Republicans who were already leaning toward President Biden and were now simply even more firm in their defection. ? This sort of thing is very important when determining whether the verdict has a material effect on the race.

The still imperfect but much better way to measure the impact of a new development is to see whether people actually changed their voting intentions. It turns out that so far, following Mr. Trump's conviction on 34 counts of falsifying business records, few people have done so. My office asked nearly 500 voters across the country the day after the verdict who they would vote for and whether the verdict had changed their votes. The trap ? We had already interviewed these people over the past few months, so we knew what they had told us earlier.

When we asked these voters who they intended to vote for, 97% of those who previously said they would vote for Mr. Trump in 2024 stuck with Mr. Trump. Likewise, 98% of those who previously said they would vote for Mr. Biden remained with Mr. Biden. The best news for Mr. Biden is that, among the very small number of previously undecided voters, 40% say they now lean toward Mr. Biden, with just 3% of previously undecided voters leaning toward Mr. Trump.

When we then specifically asked these respondents whether the verdict caused them to change their vote, almost none of the respondents who said they changed their vote due to the verdict actually changed their vote to either Trump or Biden during the previous investigation.

The guilty verdict, in itself, does not seem to really move voters in the short term. People who previously thought Mr. Trump was a good man or worthy of being president still think so. People who previously didn't like him had their opinions confirmed. Mr. Trump’s impressions are so powerfully ingrained that it would take something even more monumental than being convicted of falsifying business records to change them.

But I think it's too early to throw up our hands and declare that none of this is politically important. I believe that if Mr. Trump is sentenced to prison, it could shape the race.

Trump is a criminal, it's a statement about who he is as a corrupt, rule-breaking, dishonest person, something people already have strong opinions about. Trump going to jail is a development of a different nature, an elevation of the seriousness of the situation and what a Trump presidency could mean for the country beyond just that Trump is a bad man.

If Judge Juan Merchan sentences Mr. Trump to probation, community service or another lesser sentence, the effect of the trial will be whether people will feel uncomfortable choosing someone as president. 'one who also carries the label of criminal. Early data suggests that the label alone is not a game-changer. Voters who lean toward Mr. Trump may well conclude that having to speak periodically with a probation officer will not hamper his performance as commander in chief.

Prison is different. The reality is that most voters do not expect Mr. Trump to actually be incarcerated. According to my data, only one in five think they might face prison time, and most of them are already Biden voters. It's not hard to imagine a voter who isn't crazy about Mr. Trump but tends to vote for him, who thinks the trial and the verdict itself were just a lot of noise to nothing, but when faced with the prospect of voting for a man who has been sentenced to prison has a strong reaction.

This reaction to the sentence could have an effect in both directions. Clearly, voters reluctantly considering Mr. Trump might determine that sending someone to the White House at the very moment he faces prison is a bridge too far. Less likely but not impossible, a harsh sentence could harden the resolve of disgruntled Republicans who have a distaste for Mr. Trump but nonetheless believe he has been treated unfairly in this case.

Whether Mr. Trump could go to prison is something very undecided and Trump voters have not taken into account their assumptions regarding the presidential race. This immediately makes the situation much more volatile.

Which raises the worrying prospect of the side effects that harsh punishment could have on the nation and the race. Mr Trump has ominously warned he could reach breaking point if sentenced to prison. Clearly, the verdict alone, without conviction, rallied Mr. Trump's most fervent supporters; he collected $53 million in donations in just 24 hours after the verdict. But it's troubling to consider what a prison sentence could mean in a political environment in which Trump supporters believe our system of government itself is teetering on the brink in the wake of the trials and verdict. (Few things moved the polls on Mr. Trump in a major way, but one did, at least temporarily: the scenes of violence on January 6.)

Mr. Trump's sentencing is set just days before he is officially named the Republican presidential nominee. We have historical precedent for what a convention reversal looks like in the polls, but we have no precedent for how voters might react to the conviction of a major presidential candidate.

Be wary of any confident statements about what Mr. Trump's guilty verdict means for the elections in the coming weeks. It is the sentence, not just the verdict, that will determine the final effect of the case on the election.

Kristen Soltis Anderson is an opinion editor for The New York Times. She is a Republican pollster, speaker, commentator, and author of The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up).

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