"It doesn't take a big swing": Expert says "one group" ditching Trump over conviction — independents

Democrats and Republicans are sticking to their corners — but new poll shows independents moving away from Trump

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published June 19, 2024 9:01AM (EDT)

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a community roundtable at the 180 Church in Detroit, Michigan, on June 15, 2024. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a community roundtable at the 180 Church in Detroit, Michigan, on June 15, 2024. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's allies have insisted that his criminal conviction in New York would actually help him in the campaign, arguing that the public would buy the former president's claim that the prosecution amounted to political persecution. But a new poll raises serious doubts about that prediction and suggest Trump has lost ground among independent voters since the verdict came down.

A Politico Magazine/Ipsos poll released Monday found that 22 percent of respondents said that Trump's conviction is important to how they will vote and makes them less inclined to support the former president, compared to just 6 percent who said the conviction affects how they plan to vote and makes them more likely to support Trump.

Trump's recent conviction had a similar result among independent voters, with 21% reporting it made them less likely to support him and factored into their voting plans. That percentage is notable given that even minor shifts in independent and swing-voters could sway the election if the race is close.

Such a shift also isn't surprising given what researchers know about "notoriously unpredictable" independent voters, according to Thom Reilly, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University and co-director of ASU's Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy.

"We've clearly seen that [the conviction is] not making a difference with Democrats and Republicans," Reilly told Salon. "So it makes sense that the one group that perhaps it may move the needle on and impact how they vote are independents."

Independents "represent the political spectrum" but seem to be bound together by two prominent "thematic issues," explained Reilly, a co-author of "The Independent Voter," a 2022 book analyzing the rise of the voting bloc. A portion of independents tend to be "anti-corruption," he said, which aligns with an indication that they may be more hesitant to support a candidate who's been convicted of a felony. Those voters have also centralized around "anti-incumbency" as seen in recent presidential elections, Reilly said, pointing to former President Barack Obama's eight-point lead with the voting bloc in 2008 — which became a five-point deficit with independents in his 2012 re-election bid — Trump's four-point lead in 2016 and Biden's 13-point lead in 2020. 

"They seem to be moving, and some of that may be because [they're] just wanting something different, or the problem the parties make when independents may vote in the plurality for their party: they tend to treat them as partisans, and they're not, so they get disenfranchised," he said.

Robert Lieberman, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, told Salon he expects independent voters to be one of the main demographics to determine the outcome of this year's election, especially in competitive states. Whether the former president's conviction will ultimately come home to roost at the polls will depend on how those voters feel — and their likelihood of actually voting. 

"A lot of those voters are probably also people who are among the people who feel, right now, that they're not energized by the choice between Biden and Trump," Lieberman said. Of those whom the poll indicates have been swayed by the conviction, "is it enough to get those people off their couch and to the polling place or to a mailbox to vote" if they otherwise might not have voted? 

A Manhattan jury found Trump guilty late last month of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 hush money payment made to an adult-film star ahead of the 2016 presidential election to conceal their alleged affair from voters. The former president has continuously denied wrongdoing and the allegations, and has signaled plans to appeal the verdict after his July 11 sentencing. 

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Thirty-eight percent of all respondents to the Politico survey indicated Trump's conviction had no influence over their level of support for a Trump presidency, but among those for which the verdict did have an impact, the results were uneven. Thirty-three percent said the conviction made them less likely to support the presumptive GOP nominee, while just 17 percent said it made them more likely to. 

The results looked similar when specified to independent voters, with 32 percent saying the verdict made them less likely to support Trump and only 12 percent reporting it would make them more likely to support him. The former figure is down four percent from a pre-conviction poll Politico Magazine/Ipsos published in March that asked only how a guilty verdict in the Manhattan case would affect voters' support for the former president. 

Altogether, Politico writes, the latest poll results "suggest that Americans’ views on the Trump verdict may still be malleable — and could get better or worse for Trump."

His sentencing and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's upcoming testimony before Congress about the case are among a slew of events that could further influence public opinion before the election, regardless of political campaigns' efforts to do so. Hunter Biden's conviction last week on felony gun charges and a trial on tax charges slated for September could also play a part as they undercut right-wing claims that the Biden administration has "weaponized" the Justice Department against Trump, the outlet notes.

For now, however, some of the results seem to also suggest Americans' are overwhelmingly indifferent about the conviction as far as it pertains to how they plan to vote.

Forty-seven percent of politically independent respondents said Trump's conviction had no affect on their support of the former president or their voting plans in November. That apparent indifference was also reflected by the survey takers overall, with 40 percent of all respondents saying the same.

Other polls from shortly before or after Trump's conviction had similar findings. A late May PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll conducted during the Manhattan trial saw 67 percent of respondents saying the conviction would have no impact on their vote — including 74 percent of independents — while a recontacting survey conducted by The New York Times noted just a two-point decrease in support for the former president among registered voters that still gave him a one point lead over Joe Biden. 

These results mark a stark contrast from earlier surveys of registered voters' expected reactions to a guilty verdict, which often saw not insignificant percentages of respondents indicating in one way or another that his conviction would turn them off from supporting him or voting for him come November. 

Lieberman said he'd always been skeptical of the polls and claims that suggested Trump's conviction would not have a "big impact."

"Unless you're Rip Van Winkle, and you just woke up from a 10 year nap, your views of Donald Trump are pretty well fixed, and an additional piece of information that he was convicted of this thing that pretty much everyone knew he did — it's not really breathtaking new information," he said, arguing that not much is surprising to U.S. voters given the former president has been "at the center of American politics for nine years."

"For the people who support him, this is evidence that the deep state really is out to get him, for the people who hate him, this is confirmation of their previous belief that he's a criminal, and for people in-between, they're still going to be in between," he continued. "Of all the things that we've learned about Donald Trump for the last 10 years, why would this be the thing that kicks them over from indifference to either support or opposition?"

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In addition to the apparent lack of shock value among the electorate, American's haven't really been paying attention to Trump's prosecution or conviction, Reilly posited — a claim supported by the 55 percent of Americans who reported as much in an early May PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

A better litmus test to gauge voter attitudes toward the conviction would come after Trump's sentencing, Lieberman said, both because it offers voters more information about the former president's legal status and is just slightly closer to the election. 

Reilly added he suspects the percentage of seemingly indifferent voters will decrease as more information becomes available and more Americans engage with it.

Even then, the small shifts in voter support seen in current polls, especially among independents, could still signal a massive impact in November that determines the next U.S. president. While 21 percent of independents pulling support from Trump doesn't read as a large portion of the electorate, in a race poised to be as close in margin as the 2020 and 2016 elections, that portion of voters in key districts and swing states could be all that's needed to decide the election for either main-party candidate, Lieberman explained. 

"It's going to be decided by a very small number of votes in a few states that are very close," he predicted. "It doesn't take a big swing of a large number of voters to change the outcome in a state like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona." 

What impact the conviction will have on voters' opinions and November decisions at the ballot box will ultimately come down to the Biden and Trump campaigns' strategies, Lieberman said. 

Biden rolled out a $50 million ad campaign on Monday blasting Trump as a "convicted criminal" while also referencing his civil liability for sexual abuse and defamation, a move that Lieberman said indicates Biden's campaign has some reason to believe some voters will be swayed by "being reminded of that."

"A lot of how this plays will be defined by the campaigns. How much is Biden going to talk about it? That's what people will see," he said. "How much are these ads that he started to run going to take off? Is that one of the things that the Biden campaign is going to want people to remember about Donald Trump when they cast their vote? Or are they going to focus on something else?

"And does Trump want to keep talking about it as part of his list of grievances, or is he going to focus his attention on other grievances?" Lieberman continued, adding: "Which grievances will he and his campaign find most useful to motivate people?"

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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