Two weeks since Trump’s New York guilty verdict: What have we learned?

Trump’s history-making ‘hush-money’ verdict has only caused ripples so far in polls as he seeks re-election in November.

Former President Donald Trump greets supporters in Bedminster, New Jersey [Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – It has been two weeks since Donald Trump became the first former United States president convicted of criminal charges. But polls show the extraordinary verdict has largely been met with a resounding ho-hum.

On May 30, Trump was found guilty on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, in what prosecutors described as an effort to conceal a hush-money payment to a porn star.

But experts say the public response to the verdict has been a ripple rather than a tidal wave — and that is a reflection of the unique political moment the US finds itself in.

Trump is seeking re-election in November, and he is in a tight race against current President Joe Biden. But his campaign has been bolstered by strong support among Republicans, who have largely rallied under his leadership.

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, credited the muted reaction following May’s historic verdict to the Republican Party — and the media — normalising what should be remarkable.

“We never, in the 230 years plus of American history, have had a former president, or even a major party presidential candidate, charged with a crime, much less convicted of multiple felonies,” Lichtman told Al Jazeera.

“This is a cataclysmic event without precedent, and at least so far, it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on people’s views of Donald Trump.”

‘Hush money’ vs ‘scheme to defraud’

According to Lichtman, the subdued response has been, in many ways, a culmination of Trump’s years-long effort to build a perception of both political impunity and persecution.

Trump bragged in 2016 that he could shoot someone on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and still “not lose any voters”. He ultimately won that year’s presidential race.

Nevertheless, for years, he has also promoted — without evidence — the claim that he is the target of a coordinated political “witch-hunt”, designed to keep him from power.

Lichtman added that the media’s coverage of the trial also contributed to the beige public reaction.

The trial, which took place in New York City, hinged on the prosecution’s argument that Trump covered up the hush-money payment to protect his chances in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump has denied the charges. But prosecutors maintained he used illegal means to conceal information from the American electorate.

The fact that the media referred to the trial as the “hush-money” case contributed to the lack of outrage, Lichtman said. He believes the verdict would have resounded more if the media had framed the case as a question of “fraud perpetrated on the American people”.

“Trump has played the media like a fiddle,” Lichtman explained. “Then, let’s not forget, virtually to a person, the entire Republican Party has bought into his lies that he was convicted by a rigged system in a phoney trial.”

A litmus test for voters

That was a message Trump and his campaign helped calcify as the New York verdict approached.

In a news conference after being found guilty, the former president sought to directly tie his conviction to the Biden administration, without providing evidence for the claim.

“This is all done by Biden and his people,” Trump said in the news conference. “We’re dealing with a corrupt government. We have a corrupt country.”

Shortly after, he again raised the spectre of political violence if he were to be imprisoned.

“I’m not sure the public would stand for it,” Trump told Fox News. “You know, at a certain point, there’s a breaking point.”

Earlier this week, his campaign even sent out an email titled, “Haul out the Guillotine”, a reference to the French Revolution.

For his part, Biden – through campaign communications and the White House – has portrayed the conviction of proof of a healthy and impartial justice system.

The New York trial is far from the end of Trump’s legal woes. He faces separate state and federal charges related to efforts to subvert his 2020 election loss to Biden, as well as a fourth indictment in Florida for allegedly hoarding classified documents.

But none of the other cases are expected to conclude before the presidential race on November 5.

That means the New York trial offers the first – and perhaps only – litmus test for how a criminal conviction will be viewed by the nearly 160 million registered voters in the US.

Muted fallout in polls

Since the verdict, there has been evidence that Trump’s strategy has helped to energise his supporters. His campaign claimed to have raised $141m in May, including two million small-money donations.

More than a third of those donations were made online in the 24 hours after the verdict, according to Trump’s campaign, although the official fundraising filings for the period have not yet been released.

Then, there have been a series of polls that have shown a broadly ambivalent response to the prospect of electing a convicted felon as president.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted immediately after the verdict found that only 10 percent of registered Republicans reported they were less likely to vote for Trump after the conviction.

Meanwhile, 56 percent of Republicans said the case would have no effect on their vote. Another 35 percent indicated it would make them more likely to vote for Trump.

The verdict’s impact was more pronounced among independent voters, a coveted demographic in US politics.

Approximately 25 percent of the independent voters surveyed said Trump’s conviction made them less likely to support him in November, compared with 18 percent who said they were more likely to vote for him.

However, the majority of the group — 56 percent — said the conviction would have no impact on their decision.

Still, two weeks after the verdict, most major polls and forecasters show Biden and Trump neck and neck in the presidential race, although several leading organisations — including FiveThirtyEight and Morning Consult — put Biden ahead with a slight edge.

This week, CBS News and YouGov released another poll showing the candidates virtually tied in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

However, as before, the majority of the voters surveyed said the New York conviction was not a factor in how they would cast their ballot come November.

Michael Fauntroy, the founding director of the Race, Politics and Policy Center at George Mason University, told Al Jazeera the cascade of post-verdict polls demonstrates one thing: “Trump has been hurt, but not mortally so.”

Will public sentiment reflect on ballot?

But the November 5 election is still more than four months away. That could help or hurt Trump.

Experts note that the public’s attention span is short — and already, other high-profile news items have diverted focus away from the New York verdict.

They include the conviction of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, on charges he lied on a federal firearm background check form. The verdict represents the first time a sitting president’s child has been found guilty of criminal charges.

The Trump campaign sought to play up the conviction as evidence of what it calls the “Biden crime family”. But the verdict could also prove a double-edged sword, with some observers noting the case may neutralise Trump’s claim that the judiciary is corrupted by political bias.

After all, the Hunter Biden case was prosecuted by the Department of Justice, which falls under Biden’s White House. And the president has ruled out pardoning his son.

Then there is Trump’s upcoming sentencing hearing on July 11. The severity of the penalty is expected to impact voter opinion.

Fauntroy cautioned that the eventual sentence may make Trump’s conviction stickier and more difficult for his campaign to navigate.

“The sentencing may well accelerate the concern that Republicans have,” he said. “What if he gets jail time? What if he gets house arrest? What if he gets 30 days house arrest? What if he gets 1,000 hours of community service?”

Trump’s sentence, Fauntroy explained, “could be potentially very problematic for him”.

Even slight fluctuations in the polls could also spell trouble for Trump. Any dip in support could make the difference in an election that is expected to turn on a knife’s edge.

“It could have a small, immediate impact but a large ultimate impact,” Fauntroy said, “if the number of Republicans who are repulsed by this remains as it is now.”

And there is perhaps a larger reason for the disquiet looming over Trump’s camp, he added.

Several polls, including those conducted by Morning Consult and ABC News/Ipsos, have found a majority of Americans think the guilty verdict was correct. Fauntroy explained that shows a persistent vulnerability that could later be activated by Trump’s opponents.

“Right now, it’s a slight negative for Trump,” Fauntroy said, “but potentially a really bad one going forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera