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What if Trump Is Convicted?

By Sean Trende
Published On: Last updated 05/14/2024, 08:38 AM EDT

The defense is expected to rest in Donald Trump’s “hush money” trial in New York City. If convicted, Trump faces potential felony charges for misclassifying the nature of payments allegedly made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in his business records with an intent to interfere with the 2016 election. The jury will soon be able to decide whether to accept the prosecution’s characterization or Trump’s claims that the records weren’t misclassified and that even if they are, it isn’t election subversion for a candidate to attempt to prevent harmful news stories from being released.

The salacious details of the case would likely have been enough to sink the prospects of any presidential candidacy in the past, but things have changed. First, Trump’s extramarital dalliances are nothing new; they’re the reason that a lot of people heard of Donald Trump in the first place. Second, beginning with Bill Clinton’s presidency, Americans have become increasingly willing to tolerate sexual misbehavior at the highest levels of politics. To sink Trump’s campaign, there would have to be something more.

Democrats are hoping that a felony conviction would alter that equation and convince at least some independent voters or wavering Republicans to change their minds. There seems to be some support for this idea in the polling data. An ABC News poll from last month found that a majority of Americans believed that the matters raised in the New York trial were “significant.”  One-fifth of Trump voters in that poll stated that they would reconsider their support (16%) or withdraw it (4%) if Trump were convicted.

There are, however, sound reasons to be skeptical. Simply put, voters sometimes lie. There’s a concept in polling science known as “social desirability bias.” The idea is this: People are reluctant to tell pollsters that they hold views that are viewed as widely unacceptable in society.  

Consider this polling series from Gallup. It asks people whether they would consider ever voting for a presidential candidate who was black, Catholic, female, Jewish, and so forth. Fully 96% of Americans say that they would vote for a black presidential candidate, while 93% say that they would vote for a woman. 

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether they think more than 4% of Americans would shy away from voting for a black presidential candidate, but that seems improbably low. Note, though, that this doesn’t mean that these respondents are outright lying to pollsters. They may be lying to themselves, telling the pollster that under the right circumstances, they would vote for a woman or minority, but when faced with the opportunity, they come up with reasons not to. Note that when the question involves disfavored groups where discrimination is more acceptable on a societal basis, people are more willing to express outright hostility.

So it likely is with The Donald. People naturally want to tell pollsters that felony charges are serious, even if they know little about them. They certainly want to tell pollsters that a felony conviction is a big deal. The question is whether they would actually act on that impulse. Again, they may well believe that they wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump if he’s convicted of a felony. The question is whether, inside the voting booth, they would weigh other factors. Examples of justifications people may embrace: “The judge/jury pool/prosecutor/judge’s daughter is/are Democrats.” “Biden did bad things, too.” “This conviction is just about sex and getting Trump.” This is part of why Republicans are working so hard to inform people that the trial judge’s daughter works for the Democratic Party.

The ultimate question isn’t whether one in five Trump voters would actually reconsider voting for him in the event of a conviction. It isn’t even whether one in 25 Trump voters would withhold their support. In a close election, the number of voters who change their minds doesn’t have to be that substantial to change the outcome.

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