Barack Obama's pollsters see "big red flags" for Donald Trump's presidential campaign

Mike Kulisheck and Shannon Currie of the Beneson Strategy Group on the impact of indictments on Trump's polling

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 6, 2023 5:49AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Barack Obama (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Barack Obama (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Political scientists have described public opinion as being a type of chorus. The song that the American people are now singing lacks harmony and rhythm. 

This is to be expected given how the lyrics and the music are new and uncomfortable for many Americans. Over the last seven years, they have experienced truly "historic" events like the coup attempt of Jan. 6, 2021, a lethal pandemic that killed more than a million people in this country, ascendant neofascism and white supremacy, and a legitimacy crisis. Adding to these "historic" events in some of the worst ways, Donald Trump is now the first ex-president in American history to be indicted and arrested. The disgraced ex-president now faces the real possibility of being sentenced to prison for hundreds of years.

Despite (or because of) Trump's lawlessness and continued threats of violence, or of pursuing a campaign of revenge and retaliation against his perceived enemies, if he takes back the White House in 2025, his popularity among Republican voters appears to be stable if not growing. Trump is basically tied with President Joe Biden in the polls.

Sounding the alarm about Trump's enduring power, during a Sunday appearance on  ABC's "This Morning," former DNC chair Donna Brazile warned:

I've never seen anything like this with Donald Trump. I mean, what doesn't kill you make you stronger? I mean, being convicted — I mean, being indicted, that's making him stronger? Raising $10 million using an ugly mug shot to raise money? This is a movement. And anyone who thinks that you can apply the old political rules to try to defeat this candidate based on he's scary, he's ugly, whatever you might want to call him, this is a movement. And we have to respect the fact that it's a movement.

Biden, meanwhile, has accomplished many things, such as steering the country out of the COVID pandemic, student loan relief, stabilizing and growing the economy, passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and restoring America's leadership role in the world after the extreme harm done to it by the Trump regime. In a healthy democracy, Biden would be far ahead of Trump in the early 2024 election polling. Moreover, Trump would not be the Republican Party's presumptive nominee. In reality, he leads his closest rival by 60 points in the polls.

In an attempt to make sense of this confusing and troubling moment and what the polls are telling us (or not telling us) about Trump, Biden, the 2024 election and the shape of the country's politics more broadly, I recently spoke with Mike Kulisheck and Shannon Currie, who are senior vice president and vice president, respectively, of the Benenson Strategy Group, a consulting and marketing firm that worked as Barack Obama's pollsters during his 2012 re-election campaign.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

I always start with emotions and feelings because they are central to the human dimension of politics. How are you feeling about the Age of Trump and this ongoing democracy? How are you reconciling those feelings with what the polls and other data are telling us?

Mike Kulisheck: This is a tense moment to be an American. Trumpism is stress-testing the nation's election system and institutions. Trump's upcoming trials will test the resilience of our system of justice, people's trust in juries, and ultimately, our democracy.

We just fielded a survey about Donald Trump's actions related to the 2020 elections and the January 6 riots that shows a large majority of voters troubled by Trump's behavior and his indictments. But, at the same time, Trump is tied with President Biden in the vote.

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The past four election cycles starting in 2016 reveal a new normal, which is that it's best to prepare for low-probability events.  When unprecedented events arise like COVID in 2020, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022, and Trump's trials in 2024, we have to be open to unprecedented reactions by voters. As pollsters, we need to design and analyze surveys with fresh eyes. If this were 20 years ago, voters would disqualify Trump completely based on the fact that he's been indicted on 91 different counts. But the reality of 2024 is that the MAGA Republican base loves him, and a lot of other voters are numb to his behavior.

Public opinion is a type of chorus. What is the chorus that is the American people telling us right now about Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

Shannon Currie: It's more like, different verses, same chorus.

Words matter. When issues are presented without injecting partisan cues and labels, most Americans share the same values and priorities. They want abortion to be available, common sense gun regulations, and the country to invest in renewable energy. They also want to see inflation under control, less crime and affordable healthcare. In this era defined by Trump, the harmony of public sentiment no longer adheres to the conventional balance between Democrats and Republicans – with the middle playing out tune when we least expect it.

Same dance, different beat.

Trump's voters and Republicans more generally live in an alternate reality and echo chamber. How they feeling about the ex-president, Jan. 6, and his many other apparent crimes?

Mike Kulisheck: Our recent poll explores voters' attitudes about Trump's role in efforts to overturn the 2020 elections, the January 6 riots at the Capitol, and the former President's indictments.  Predictably, three-quarters of Republicans reject criticism of Trump for what happened after the 2020 elections. That said, a sizable bloc of Republicans are consistently alienated by Trump's behavior and critical of his post-election actions.  Among Republicans in our poll, 22% say Trump only cares about himself and cannot be trusted, 22% are less favorable to Trump because of his indictment, 24% say they are less likely to vote for him against Biden because of the indictments, and 44% of Republicans say that if convicted, Trump should face the possibility of prison time. If the base of the Republican Party is the party of Trump, and these are big red flags for him.

"While Trump is holding onto his base, our data reveals fissures in his Republican support that would be more than enough to sink his candidacy and re-elect Joe Biden."

Remember, Donald Trump only lost 6% of Republicans in 2020. While Trump is holding onto his base, our data reveals fissures in his Republican support that would be more than enough to sink his candidacy and re-elect Joe Biden.

Similarly, Trump is on his heels with Independents in our poll when the political conversation is about January 6th, overturning elections, and indictments. Two-in-three Independents say Trump cannot be trusted, 61% say they are less likely to vote for Trump against Biden because of his indictments, and 72% believe he should face prison if convicted. Moreover, in spite of his protestations, Independents believe Trump knew he lost in 2020 and that he attempted to overturn a fair and free election. When asked about the January 6th riots, Independents overwhelmingly say it was an insurrection and an attempted coup. 

These are not good numbers for Donald Trump among Republicans or Independents.

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The conventional wisdom among the news media and punditry is that Trump's criminal indictments have been helping him among Republican voters. What does the polling and other data actually indicate? What are the trends?

Mike Kulisheck: Our polling shows that the indictments are turning off majorities of Independents and enough Republicans to make Trump's path to victory extremely tight in 2024. In a race that will be decided narrowly in a handful of states, Trump cannot afford to lose anyone from his 2020 coalition. But these indictments are rallying the Trump base in a way few anticipated. Between the media's obsession with the horse race, and the "impromptu" courthouse step campaign rallies Trump will likely host after every court appearance, we should brace for another unprecedented and unpredictable 13-month long news cycle focused on Trump, and not about the issues and fears that keep Americans up at night.

What are the issues that are resonating (or not) with the public right now?

Shannon Currie: What matters as we head into 2024 is whether voters feel their lives are getting better. Covid related subsidies expired, interest rates are high, and loan payments are no longer deferred. To your previous reference about the chorus of public opinion, both parties have set the stage for this election to be not about the chorus, but one soloist – Trump.

Polls are a tool for parties and politicians and other political actors to shape decision-making in a democracy — even an ailing one like ours. What are the polls signaling – including the new poll from Benenson Strategy Group – to the country's political leadership?

Shannon Currie: America is changing, and our values and beliefs are being tested. No one needs a poll to tell us our nation is at a moral and cultural inflection point. Benenson Strategy Group doesn't focus on whether Biden or Trump is up or down by 1 or 2 points – we want to understand the kitchen table issues that Americans feel are barriers to their future success.  The best candidates always remember that elections are about the voters and the best polls help candidates have a conversation with voters about their current aspirations and dreams for their children.   

Mike Kulisheck: Given the divisions in the U.S., the middle of the electorate – Independents and moderates – are especially interesting these days. When Independents break strongly one way or another, we pay attention.  For example, the reaction among Independents to Trump's recent indictments is meaningful because fully two-thirds break against the former President. 

"Our polling shows that the indictments are turning off majorities of Independents and enough Republicans to make Trump's path to victory extremely tight in 2024."

A Biden-Trump rematch pits two extremely well-known candidates against each other.  While there will be a lot of mud slung on both sides, good polling will differentiate between the accusations that can change the race versus those that are baked in the cake and unlikely to alter outcomes.  For example, voters know that Joe Biden is old. The question is whether Biden's age will change people's votes in an election where the other candidate is Donald Trump. Similarly, even Donald Trump's supporters doubt his truthfulness.  Will Democrats pointing out Trump's dishonesty change many minds at this point?

If you were to brief Donald Trump about how the American people feel towards him, what would you highlight? What advice would you give him? Likewise, what would you tell President Biden and his advisers?

Mike Kulisheck: Trump's greatest challenge is calibrating his message to the audience that will get him 271 electoral votes.  Trump has always maximized adulation by preaching to his base. He seldom leaves the safety of the rightwing echo chamber. This is a reasonable strategy to win the Republican nomination, but it makes winning a general election harder. The question for 2024 is whether Trump can make himself presentable enough to win back the suburbs, more educated voters, and the bloc of voters across the country that has been activated around the overturning of Roe v. Wade by Trump's hand-picked Supreme Court. 

Joe Biden needs to find a way to tell his story of success as President.  He has an enviable record of accomplishment.  After voting against it, even Republicans are promoting the benefits of Biden's Inflation Adjustment Act to their red-state constituents. Right now, the economy and inflation are moving in the right direction. Making his policy achievements personal for voters is the key to Biden's success in 2024. President Biden also benefits from reminding voters that the 2024 election is a choice between two people with very different views and values when it comes to our shared future as Americans. 

Please make an intervention here. Of course, there is going to be the narrative that "The polls were wrong in 2020 and the 2022 midterms! You can't trust the polls! They are unreliable!"  

Shannon Currie: The value of good polling is to understand voters' priorities, preferences, and vision for America. A fixation on the horse race – especially this far out from the election – is a lost opportunity to understand the contours along which the 2024 election will proceed and ultimately be decided. Polls are very accurate when it comes to where voters stand on the issues of the day and policy priorities. Reporting should use polls to understand the electorate's priorities and leanings around the issues and actions that will drive their vote decisions.

Where will Trump's voters go, when/if he is forced out of the presidential election?

Mike Kulisheck: It depends on how Trump leaves the race. The risk for Republicans no matter how he leaves the race is that Trump's diehard supporters stay at home on Election Day. 

If Republicans nominate someone else, the question is, how will Trump react? He has not revealed himself to be particularly generous in defeat. If the party turns on him, it seems highly likely that Trump will turn on the party, or at least withhold his full support from the Republican ticket. 

If Trump is forced out of the race because of his indictments and trials, he could see personal advantage in promoting the Republican nominee. In this case, he could rile up his supporters to support the Republican ticket in defense of him and against his perceived unfair treatment. 

America's democracy crisis is much bigger than Trump or any other such one leader or party. Using therapeutic language — let's imagine you are a consulting physician — how is the health of the patient? What does treatment look like? What is the prognosis? 

Shannon Currie: The American body politic has an infection that is resistant to regularly prescribed antibiotics. We are trying different antibiotics and hoping one will cure the infection. The prognosis is good as long as we have alternate antibiotics to prescribe and time for them to work. 

Mike Kulisheck: Our institutions have held so far against repeated attack by Trump and others. Looking ahead, Trump's trials and the 2024 election will reveal the strength and resilience of our institutions and democracy.  Sticking with the analogy, we will find out if the antibiotics work or if the infection overpowers the body politic's defenses.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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