In the middle of last year, several of Donald Trump’s closest advisers, including some of his 2024 campaign’s senior staff, started noticing an ominous trend in independent polling and in internal Republican survey data: A significant share of swing voters in key states — even some Republicans — say they would not want to vote for a freshly-convicted criminal.
The trend spooked them enough that, in recent months, some of these officials and political allies have directly warned Trump of possible looming catastrophe ahead for his 2024 presidential bid, two people with direct knowledge of the matter tell Rolling Stone.
For the most part, Trump has shrugged off such warnings, as he and his campaign brass publicly lean on bravado and their messaging that President Joe Biden’s reelection prospects are unequivocally doomed in November. Still, Trump and his legal team are working diligently to delay his criminal trials, in hopes that he can secure the presidency once again — and the power to quash the cases — before any potential convictions come down.
They’ve had at least some success: On Friday, the judge in Trump’s Washington, D.C. election subversion case declared that the trial will not take place on March 4, as it was originally scheduled, and will be rescheduled at a later date.
Republicans close to the former president and current 2024 GOP frontrunner have been carefully tracking poll results — especially in a handful of battleground states that will decide the expected Biden-Trump rematch — of likely swing voters who say they are open to pulling the lever for Trump, with a major caveat. Many of these survey respondents, including in the crucial bloc of self-identifying independents, keep saying that they would not vote for Trump, if prior to the election, a jury handed down a guilty verdict in one of the criminal cases against him.
In a number of national and state polls, this variable — whether Trump is criminally convicted — puts what has been a moderate Trump lead in peril. For several months, this trend has continued to appear in a variety of high-quality polls, both public and private, including as recently as this week.
But even as the MAGA elite publicly insist that Biden is historically vulnerable as an incumbent, the polling trend has grown increasingly difficult for Trump’s lieutenants to just brush off, according to interviews with seven knowledgeable sources such as conservative activists close to Trump 2024, officials working on the ex-president’s campaign, longtime GOP operatives, and Trump allies in right-wing media.
“[Late last year], I mentioned to him how the polls were saying a conviction would hammer him with some of the voters he needs to keep in his column to win,” says a source who has spoken to Trump about 2024 many times. “I said it was something to take very seriously, but not necessarily a death blow … But in my own thoughts, I kept thinking, ‘It’d be a fucking disaster.’ But we’ll find out, I guess. Hopefully, people are lying to the pollsters.”
Within the upper echelons of Team Trump, there is a range of opinion on what these numbers mean exactly. Some say it’s too early and that it’s all theoretical, and therefore possibly a polling mirage. Others are concerned, but they’re not setting their hair on fire. Some are privately saying that a criminal conviction could be fatal to Trump’s chances at reconquering the White House.
Another close Trump ally tells Rolling Stone that, though there are many variables and Biden’s own polling is uniquely terrible, they can’t shake the feeling that one day they’ll look back on this polling trend as a bright-red warning sign — one that is comparable to the foreboding signs that Trump’s 2016 opponent saw for months before her defeat.
As this Trump ally points out, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was derailed in part by an investigation by former FBI Director James Comey. The ally notes that Clinton “had [FBI director James] Comey hanging over her for the 2016 campaign. It was not the only thing that brought her down, but it was a significant thing… hacking at her campaign for months. Is a criminal conviction going to be our Hillary-Comey moment, if there ends up being [a guilty verdict] before the election? It’s a question that sort of haunts me, and I’ve discussed it with some of President Trump’s campaign people and people who the [former] president listens to.”
Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesperson, tells Rolling Stone: “These Crooked Joe Biden-directed Witch Hunts, assisted by fake news mainstream media, are just desperate attempts at election interference meant to try and disenfranchise voters because President Trump is dominating in the polls. This is all vile politics by President Trump’s enemies because they will do everything in their power, including weaponizing lawfare, to stop the presumptive Republican nominee for president and next president of the United States.”
Throughout the 2024 GOP presidential primary, Trump’s looming criminal liability has, if anything, proven to be more of a boon than problem, as his rivals proved eager to echo Trump’s allegations that he’s being unfairly persecuted. Throughout the cases, Trump’s most devoted fans have also stuck by him. The former president’s best fundraising hauls have all followed his arrests and arraignments in the various trials against him, with the largest following his booking and mugshot in the Fulton County, Georgia election conspiracy case.
But outside his core of fervent supporters, polls suggest Trump would face trouble maintaining support among the outer periphery of Republicans in the event he’s convicted in one of his trials.
“It always seemed that Democrats found the perfect tool to gain the upper hand in the 2024 election. The prosecutions of Trump clearly boosted him in the primary, but data has consistently shown that it is likely to be deadly to him among the swing voters he needs to win in a general election, especially if there’s a conviction,” says Matt Wolking, an ex-Trump 2020 campaign official who formerly served as a senior official at Never Back Down, a super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ failed presidential campaign.
The data has varied over time and across polling firms, but the message remains the same: Conviction could cause a significant number of Republicans to rethink their support. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s arrest in the special counsel’s election conspiracy case, nearly half of Republicans surveyed by Reuters/Ipsos said they wouldn’t vote for him in the event of a conviction. Similar polling following Special Counsel Jack Smith’s election case charges found that most voters believed the charges against Trump were “serious” and that he should go to prison if found guilty.
The percentage of Republicans who said they wouldn’t vote for Trump in the event of a conviction declined to 31 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in December, but it still represents a serious threat to the Trump 2024 campaign.
The impact of a conviction may be even more pronounced among voters in the key swing states that Trump needs to win in order to defeat Biden. According to polling by Bloomberg News and Morning Consult released on Wednesday, more than half of voters in seven key battleground states say a conviction would prevent them from casting a ballot for Trump. Among the voters who hold negative views of both candidates, that number rises to 79 percent.
Of course, not everyone in Trump’s orbit is a doomsayer on this.
“If anything, the criminal prosecutions of Donald Trump have only strengthened him in this election,” says Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, who has been a faith adviser to Trump for years. “How many times did we hear predictions that indictments were going to destroy his campaign?”
Jeffress continues, “Some political consultants are of course paid to worry and to be very cautious. It’s a political campaign with a lot of moving parts. I know what some of the polls say, but I’m confident that independent voters, come Election Day, will look at the complete breakdown and rot that Biden has brought, and decide we need to vote for someone who made the country strong. I was with Donald Trump [on Thursday], and I told him his evangelical support, for instance, has never seemed stronger — even compared to 2020 and 2016.”
Aside from a conviction, a daily spectacle relitigating Trump’s 2020 election conspiracy theories as the cases head to trial could also affect Trump’s performance in a pending rematch with Biden. Trump-backed candidates who made Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 presidential election a feature of their candidacies tended to fare poorly in the 2022 midterms, suggesting voters are tired of the issue. But the former president has already pressured his attorneys to use his upcoming D.C. election subversion trial as a platform to further push his election lies.
If Trump were to defeat Biden in this year’s general election, he would once more gain presidential immunity from criminal prosecutions, and his administration could effectively erase the federal cases against him — and perhaps even keep him out of prison. Indeed, Trump has been suggesting to confidants for years that he needs to be president again in part for those very perks.
“This campaign is focused on the mission at hand: winning,” says Cheung, the Trump spokesperson. “And we have been crushing the competition and continue to dominate Crooked Joe in every single battleground state because voters are sick [and] tired of the last four years of a failed presidency, and they know President Trump is the only person who can bring our country back.”
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