Trump’s Conviction Jolts the Race. But Will It Influence the Outcome?

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Donald J. Trump’s conviction on nearly three dozen felony counts plunges the country into unmapped political terrain, a rare moment that could reshuffle a 2024 race that for months has been locked in stasis and defined by a polarizing former president.

The extraordinary conviction of a former president unleashes a series of unprecedented constitutional, electoral and logistical questions. Yes, he can run for office as a felon. Less clear is whether even Thursday’s striking verdict will shake the calcified public opinion of Mr. Trump, who for nearly a decade has defied predictions of his political demise.

Now he must move through the rituals of an American presidential campaign as a criminal. It will amount to a high-pressure stress test, not only of Mr. Trump but of America’s political traditions, legal institutions and ability to hold an election under some of the greatest partisan strains in decades — if not since the Civil War.

The country will watch as Mr. Trump argues with President Biden over his criminal record next month at their first debate, in addition to sparring over the economy, foreign policy, immigration and abortion rights.

Soon after will come the unlikeliest of split screens: The sentencing on July 11, when Mr. Trump will learn whether he faces probation or up to four years in prison, is one week before he is set to formally accept his party’s presidential nomination in Milwaukee. The appeal process will play out at the same time as advertising blitzes in battleground states.

“The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5, by the people,” Mr. Trump declared as he left the Manhattan courthouse, vowing to fight through the election. “This is long from over.”

That much he and Mr. Biden agreed upon.

“There’s only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: At the ballot box,” the president wrote in a fund-raising email within an hour of the verdict.

Mr. Trump has spent much of his political career persuading supporters to doubt the legitimacy of long-sacrosanct democratic institutions like the courts, elections and judges. His reaction on Thursday was more of the same: Minutes after the guilty verdict was read aloud, he cast himself in fund-raising pitches as a “political prisoner.”

Yet even as Mr. Trump’s charges carried the momentousness of history, they had a certain smallness to them. He was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records to obscure a hush-money payment made to a porn star at the height of his 2016 campaign. Those crimes do not carry the same severity as the federal case over his efforts to overthrow the 2020 election — a fact that could work in his favor with voters. And delays in the three other cases against him mean none are likely to be decided before Election Day.

For months, Mr. Trump had prepared his supporters for this moment, casting the case as a politically motivated sham intended to derail his presidential run. He has seethed publicly and privately about his various charges, vowing vengeance if he retakes the White House.

Trump allies have talked about counter-investigations into those they believe have targeted him. “Accountability is coming,” the campaign arm of House Republicans wrote in a fund-raising text, “and justice will be served.”

By Thursday evening, Mr. Trump’s campaign website had been transformed into an argument for his innocence, a choice that revealed the new political terrain — and personal stakes — of the 2024 race. The boisterous red and blue of American politics was replaced with a stark photo of his mug shot and the words “NEVER SURRENDER” in capital letters.

“I was just convicted in a RIGGED political Witch Hunt trial: I DID NOTHING WRONG!” the page said. “They’ve raided my home, arrested me, took my mugshot, AND NOW THEY’VE JUST CONVICTED ME!”

The fact that Mr. Trump famously encouraged “lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton in 2016 was not lost on his longtime opponents. On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton used the occasion to sell coffee mugs featuring a cartoon of her and the printed words “Turns out she was right about everything” in Democratic blue.

“The design,” she wrote on Instagram, “happened to be finalized today.”

Throughout the Republican primary race, each of Mr. Trump’s indictments drew the party’s base closer to him, helping him raise political support and dollars. Early signs emerged on Thursday that the verdict might be repeating that pattern.

Shortly after the conviction, the website that processes his campaign contributions, WinRed, briefly crashed. Some supporters posted screenshots of donation receipts after the site started working again. One Silicon Valley executive who previously voted for and donated to Mrs. Clinton declared that he had given Mr. Trump $300,000.

Most Republicans — some of whom had traveled to New York in a show of courthouse solidarity — denounced the case and its outcome.

“Disgraceful,” said Speaker Mike Johnson. “A travesty of justice,” declared Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who routinely attacked Mr. Trump during the primary campaign, derided the legal proceedings as a political action undertaken by “some kangaroo court.”

The Republican National Committee privately circulated talking points that read like a decaffeinated version of some of Mr. Trump’s social media posts. “The Biden-directed Witch-Hunt is a full-frontal assault on our Constitution,” one read.

Some of his staunchest supporters went further. Kristan Hawkins, a prominent antiabortion leader, announced that the ruling had validated her decision to move to Idaho.

“No one will be safe in this new banana republic, especially Conservative leaders,” she wrote on social media. “I encourage my friends to all find new home states that will uphold our Constitution.”

The Trump campaign policed the party for any less-than-full-throated displays of loyalty. After former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a moderate Republican who is now running for Senate, wrote on X that he urged “all Americans to respect the verdict,” a top Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita, wrote, “You just ended your campaign.”

Despite all the public displays of rage and consternation, a memo by Mr. Trump’s pollsters argued that the conviction would have little impact on the race because voters had already formed their views on the trial and the former president’s actions. The issue, they wrote, is “baked into the cake.”

A jury conviction is substantially more serious than an indictment or even the congressional proceedings that turned Mr. Trump into the first American president to be impeached twice. And some Democrats believe the verdict could break through to voters by November.

“Sometimes when there have been fights about Trump and whether or not he has broken the law or should be impeached, a lot of voters read it as kind of a pox on both houses. It’s political,” said Angela Kuefler, a Democratic pollster. “But there is a difference between thinking an impeachment is political and going to the voter box and checking a name next to a convicted felon. The psychology of that is different.”

The Biden campaign has long been clear that it is not hanging its electoral chances on a conviction. Voters, the campaign has argued consistently, have tuned out the noise of the legal machinations and incremental developments in Mr. Trump’s criminal cases. The campaign has said that abortion and the threat Mr. Trump poses to democracy are far more resonant.

Mr. Biden’s campaign took a restrained approach on Thursday, offering little more than a brief statement proclaiming that “no one is above the law.” Prominent supporters like Gov. Gavin Newsom of California were noticeably silent.

The scale of the political impact, said Geoff Garin, a pollster for the Biden campaign, may depend on how the tempestuous Mr. Trump reacts in the coming days and weeks.

“Candidates who have faced this situation have largely dealt with it by expressing contrition and saying they’ve learned their lesson,” Mr. Garin said. “The verdict itself will cost Trump voters, and the way he’s reacting to the verdict will rub a lot more in the wrong way.”

In a way, Republicans agreed. Brad Todd, a Republican strategist, said the party’s ability to unify its voters behind Mr. Trump would depend on whether the former president could make the ruling not about his personal future but about an argument that the case represented Democratic desperation to stop his campaign at all costs.

“They couldn’t beat us at the ballot box, so they tried to beat us at the court,” Mr. Todd said. “The wrongs have been done to the voters and not to Trump himself, and if he argues that, it could be the most important moment of his campaign.”

Yet in some ways, strategists affiliated with both campaigns also acknowledged that they were operating blind, with no historical parallels to draw upon.

Before the ruling, pollsters from both parties privately admitted there was little predictive value to asking voters how they would react to such a historic moment — the question was too hypothetical.

No longer.





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