What the polls can’t tell us about the Trump verdict’s effect on the election

The guilty verdict against Donald Trump in his New York hush money trial is a momentous news story in itself. What’s far less clear, and what no polling can predict, is the effect it will have on voters’ willingness to support Trump in the presidential election.

That’s not for a lack of data points. A number of pre-conviction surveys have already asked questions attempting to gauge the potential political fallout, and initial post-verdict polling provides a first look at how Americans are reacting to Trump’s conviction.

But survey questions that ask voters to explain how their choices are affected by a news event – whether a debate performance or a criminal conviction – are notoriously difficult to answer or interpret, and commonly overstate the potential for movement in public opinion. At the same time, polling also shows that many people weren’t closely following the trial, meaning that any repercussions may not immediately emerge. Combined, these factors leave room for considerable uncertainty.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, conducted during the trial and released before Thursday’s verdict, found 67% of registered voters predicting that a guilty verdict would make no difference to their vote. Fifteen percent said they’d be more likely to vote for Trump and 17% that they’d be less likely to do so. Among Trump’s current supporters, 7% predicted they would be less likely to vote for him if he were convicted. Sixty-eight percent said they didn’t think it would affect their vote, and another 24%, despite already supporting him, said a conviction would make them more likely to vote for him.

That comports with other polling taken in the run-up to the verdict, when the idea of a conviction was still hypothetical. It also appears roughly in line with one of the first post-verdict polls. A Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted Thursday night and Friday found only about 1 in 10 Republicans saying that the verdict made them at least somewhat less likely to vote for Trump.

Of course, many voters don’t answer such questions with statements about how likely they are to change their minds – instead, their responses often demonstrate how they already feel about the candidates. Inevitably, some of Trump’s staunchest supporters will say that the conviction makes them more likely to support him, and some of his staunchest opponents that it makes them less likely to do so – even though their votes were never in play in the first place.

Take the roughly one-quarter of Trump supporters in the NPR/PBS/Marist poll who said that a conviction would increase their chances of supporting him over President Joe Biden. While the conviction could serve to strengthen their loyalty to Trump, they were already planning to vote for him. And, on the flip side, while 27% of Democrats in that poll said a conviction would decrease their chances of voting for Trump, many of them were unlikely to even consider him.

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, initial post-verdict reactions divided sharply along partisan lines. An overwhelming 89% of Democrats said the prosecution of Trump was “mainly about enforcing laws fairly and upholding the rule of law,” while a similar 87% of Republicans characterized it as “mainly a politically motivated attempt to prevent Trump from returning to the White House.” Overall, Americans said, 52% to 45%, that the prosecution was mainly about enforcing and upholding the law.

Voters who aren’t already locked into a decision – and whose reactions may matter most to the campaigns – are also among the least likely to have been paying close attention to the trial. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted during the trial, only about one-third of registered voters said they were following the trial very closely, with 38% following it only somewhat closely and 30% not too closely. Attention to the trial was particularly low among some of the subgroups most likely to contain persuadable voters: 53% of voters younger than 35 and 41% of independent voters said they weren’t following the story too closely.

An April CNN poll found that, while most Trump backers said they’d support him regardless of any criminal convictions, the minority who said they “might reconsider” tended to be younger than other Trump supporters and more apt to describe themselves as politically independent and ideologically moderate.

So it could take time to see how the verdict and related developments play out on the campaign trail.

The best gauge of any immediate, tangible effect on voters’ preferences might be polls of the presidential race. They’ve remained consistently close throughout this year, but could the hush money verdict lead to them shifting noticeably? Even that is complicated. Poll results will naturally see some fluctuation, even in a stable race, making any modest effects more difficult to spot, and patterns of poll responses are sometimes temporarily disrupted in the wake of major news.

But if Thursday’s decision becomes a lasting inflection point, it should be evident in the Biden-Trump trendline.

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