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From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today — now that Donald Trump has been charged in three different criminal cases, the biggest question in American politics is whether it creates an opening for his Republican rivals in the presidential race or disqualifies him in the eyes of general election voters. My colleague, Nate Cohn, analyzes a new set of “Times” polls that answer those questions.
It’s Thursday, August 3.
All right, let’s go. We’re off.
Hi, Nate. Is that what I think it just was? The sounds I was hearing? Was that a partner obligingly getting rid of an animal from your apartment, so that you could record with “The Daily“?
That is exactly right.
The things we ask of you all.
Yeah, the dog was chewing on a treat, and it occurred to me that there was a 100 percent chance that when you all really got down to listening to my audio, you were going to hear the sound in the background or whatever.
I appreciate that. Thank you. So Nate, we wanted to talk to you, because “The Times” just finished a series of major polls about the state of the 2024 presidential race at a really important juncture, when the Republican primary field is now fully formed and the frontrunner, Donald Trump, has now been indicted three different times, most recently for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
And of course, we have learned from you to say that polls are not predictive, they are snapshots in time. But that said, let’s start with “The Times” poll of Republican voters in the Republican presidential primary, which feels very relevant at this very moment. So top line, what did we find?
Top line, we found Donald Trump doing really well. He had 54 percent of Republican primary voters to 17 percent for Ron DeSantis. That’s a 37-point lead.
Nate, I think the word you’re looking for is “crushing,” not just very well. I mean, that is a crushing lead.
It is a crushing lead. It’s much larger than the lead that Donald Trump ever had in the last Republican primary. It’s bigger than any of the leads that Hillary Clinton had in 2016 or 2008. It’s the sort of range where Donald Trump is an overwhelming frontrunner, at least if we have a big asterisk over all of his legal challenges.
Right. Well, that brings me to the inevitable question. How do we explain a lead that big after midterms, in which candidates backed by Trump did pretty poorly, and after several indictments of him in the past few months? This kind of a lead, given all that, does not at all feel like an inevitability. So how does the pole account for it?
Well, it accounts for it in one of the most straightforward and direct ways that a poll can account for it. According to our poll, Republicans overwhelmingly reject the notion that Donald Trump committed serious federal crimes. And they also believe that Donald Trump is likelier to beat Joe Biden than his rival, Ron DeSantis, even though, as you just mentioned, in the last election, Donald Trump’s candidate seemed to fare quite poorly while Ron DeSantis did well. And never mind the fact, of course, that Donald Trump actually did lose to Joe Biden three years ago.
Well, let’s drill down to which Republicans you’re referring to when you say that the majority of them think Trump has done nothing wrong and that he’s the strongest Republican nominee to take on a Democrat. And the group that I’m most curious about is the Trump MAGA base, this reliable group of supporters who seem to never abandon him, no matter what. So what does this poll find about that group of voters in this moment?
Well, the MAGA base doesn’t account for all of Trump’s support, but it is a lot of it. The poll finds that the base of MAGA voters is about 37 percent of all Republicans. And these are people who said that they had a very favorable view of Donald Trump and said they strongly supported him in the Republican primary.
And look, that’s a big group of Republicans. It’s more than 1/3 of the party. We talk about it a lot, but it’s an enormous achievement for Trump. And in our poll, none — that is, zero of the respondents — in this MAGA category said that Donald Trump has committed serious federal crimes.
Zero. Only 2 percent said that he did, quote, “something wrong.” So this isn’t a case where there are loyal Trump supporters that acknowledge his wrongdoing but still support him anyway because of his views on the issues or because they’re loyal to him. They don’t accept the premise that he’s done something wrong here. And that, obviously, goes a long way to explaining why they continue to support him.
Right, because in their mind, there’s nothing, literally nothing, to see here. I mean, it’s interesting, because I think this gives us a little bit of a basis in data for what we have kind of assumed of the Trump base, which is that it doesn’t view an indictment, any indictment, as any kind of harming factor to Trump. In some ways, it may, instead, endear him to them. Is that right?
It’s possible. We had one question that I think got at this, which is that we asked voters whether they thought Republicans needed to stand with Trump in the face of these allegations or whether it was OK if Republicans didn’t stand by Trump — not even that they needed to be against him, just, is it OK to not stand by Trump. And over 90 percent of these MAGA voters said that Republicans need to stand by Donald Trump in the face of these allegations.
Now, I should say, we finished this poll before Trump was indicted for his efforts to overturn the election. But there’s not much reason to think this third indictment will change that view among these voters. And to this point, they have seen their guy as under attack and want to rally to his defense, not that they see something wrong on Trump’s part and that they should distance themselves from him.
Got it. So by my math, given that Trump has 54 percent of Republican voters supporting him, and given how big the MAGA base is, there’s still 17 percent of Republicans supporting him who aren’t what you would define as his MAGA base. So who are these 17 percent, and why are they with Trump, according to the poll, versus one of his rivals?
Well, first, it’s just worth saying why we don’t think they’re a part of the MAGA base. And that’s because they either said they don’t support Trump strongly when we asked them, or they said they only have a somewhat favorable view of Trump. So there’s clearly something about him that they don’t like too much.
In a lot of ways, they’re broadly representative of all Republicans. And we didn’t really talk very much about the makeup of the MAGA base, but the MAGA base is very populist. It’s blue-collar. It’s very conservative.
This group of voters is more affluent. It’s likelier to say that they’re only somewhat conservative, or in some cases, even call themselves moderates. They still have views that align with the Republican Party as a whole, but they’re not all in one camp. And by their own account, they’re open to candidates other than Donald Trump in the primary campaign.
Now, they’re backing Donald Trump over the alternatives, so they’re not an automatic vote against him. And in fact, they believe that Donald Trump is more electable than Ron DeSantis, and they believe he’s a stronger leader than Ron DeSantis. But they do concede that Donald Trump is not as moral as Ron DeSantis.
So there are cracks there that, hypothetically, could lead them to support someone else if the circumstances permitted it.
Got it. They are, in theory, movable. And to that point, do we know how this 17 percent feels about this giant looming question of the President’s legal problems? The indictments, the trials, the potential that he might be convicted before the election or at any moment, and the degree to which that’s just a vast liability for him?
So even among this group of voters, who — again, they’re willing to say that DeSantis may be more moral than Trump. But they also reject the idea that Trump has committed serious federal crimes. And they also believe that Republicans ought to stand behind Trump in the face of these allegations.
And I should note, by the way, that many of the persuadable voters who don’t support Donald Trump, and in fact, prefer Ron DeSantis or another Republican candidate — they also think that. Most of the voters who are open to Donald Trump don’t think that he’s done very much wrong here, and they may, in fact, see him as the victim.
There’s an information ecosystem that is in play here. Most of these voters are getting their information from a conservative media landscape where they’re hearing that Donald Trump has been mistreated, the allegations are trumped up, that no one else got charged for doing the same thing, and so on. And I think we should be open to the idea that if that media environment ever changed, that maybe voters would become more receptive to a different message.
But at least, in that context, the idea that Ron DeSantis can get up there and say Donald Trump is a criminal is — maybe it would break the ice or something, so to speak, on this argument with the Republican base, but it could just as easily backfire.
So if you’re Ron DeSantis, the number two in this race, and you and your campaign are looking at this poll — and we know they’re looking at this poll — you have to conclude that there isn’t all that much math to play with. Right?
I mean, where does he pick up voters if 37 percent are unpersuadable and an additional 17 percent are deeply inclined to see Trump as not doing anything wrong and stronger? So what issue, what strategy, makes any sense for him, based on this poll?
This is a weird thing to say, Michael, but I think that if you take all of these poll results at face value, it adds up to a comprehensive takedown of the DeSantis theory of this race, the DeSantis theory of how they can win this election.
I don’t think there’s any good news for him here. That doesn’t mean that there’s some other thing he couldn’t do to get back in the game. It’s just, it’s not in these results.
If I were to explain the DeSantis case, I would say it’s something like DeSantis is the most electable. He proved it last November. DeSantis can actually get things done. He did this huge conservative policy agenda in Florida while Trump couldn’t get the wall done and so on.
And then, perhaps it’s also that DeSantis owned a unique set of powerful issues that appealed to Republicans, like coronavirus and the fight against woke. And I don’t think our poll provides any reason to believe that those things are working for him today. Republican voters, as I mentioned earlier — they think that Donald Trump is likely to beat Joe Biden than Ron DeSantis, even though Trump lost last time, and even though Trump’s candidates lost the midterms.
They think Trump is likelier to get things done than Ron DeSantis, even though Ron DeSantis would seem to have a very impressive set of conservative policy accomplishments. And whenever we tested the — I’ll call them “woke issues,” like taking on woke businesses or fighting the woke Left in schools — they didn’t fare that well. It’s not that Republicans disagreed and thought that Republicans shouldn’t fight these fights over woke. They just thought that other values and other issues were more important.
So the idea that Ron DeSantis could overpower all of his other problems by talking about this woke issue set doesn’t seem to be supported here either. And we didn’t even talk about the coronavirus, because that issue, which really brought Ron DeSantis to national prominence, is in the rearview mirror at this point.
I’m having this image in my head of Ron DeSantis’s weapons as being kind of sticks and stones against this kind of vast castle that is Donald Trump, and they’re just not effective.
There’s nothing here for him. If they want to come up with some other set of ideas, I would think that they mostly had to not be in this poll. If the weapon they were hoping for was in our poll, they need to go back to the armory or something.
To finish my not-that-great metaphor.
(CHUCKLING) I’m doing my best.
So that makes me wonder, if there’s a glimmer of hope in this poll, any glimmer of hope for any of the other candidates who are even further down in this poll than DeSantis — your Tim Scotts, or your Mike Pences, for example — is there one?
Well, they’re polling very low right now. I mean, Tim Scott and Mike Pence are at 3 percent and 2 percent. I think that they haven’t been tested on the national stage yet, because they haven’t emerged as major players in this race. Maybe if they did, it would go a lot better for them than it’s gone for Ron DeSantis.
But given their extremely limited levels of support, the poll certainly doesn’t offer any cause for them to be hopeful either. And I think that, to your point about fortress Trump, a lot of what’s going on here is about Trump’s strength. It’s not about DeSantis’s weakness.
Certainly, DeSantis’s weapons aren’t strong enough to bring down the castle, but it’s not obvious to me that the problem is the weapons as much as the fortress. And Donald Trump is someone who’s been at the top of the Republican Party for the better part of a decade, and Republican voters have rallied around him in the face of the kind of issues that would ordinarily bring down a candidate. So I don’t see very much cause for anyone else to have hope here either.
Mm-hmm. And if you had to identify what this fundamental strength of Trump is and how he has found a way to project it so successfully since you guys started doing this poll, what would you say it is?
I think that the strength is his ability to dominate the Republican field and the national media conversation. In our poll, we asked voters to tell us whether a word described Trump or DeSantis better, and Trump’s best result on that was “strong leader.” 69 percent of Republicans said that described Trump best, 22 percent said DeSantis. And I think that gets at the whole thing.
It’s very difficult for Ron DeSantis to look like the guy who can beat Biden or can get things done when Donald Trump is the one who’s dominating him on the airwaves and in the national conversation every day. And strength and leadership are big advantages for a presidential candidate to command by this kind of margin. And you know, maybe there’s something that could happen.
Certainly, the legal allegations are a very unusual twist that we haven’t seen before, but no candidate with this kind of a lead has gone on to lose a presidential primary with this kind of advantage at this point of the primary season. And in fact, Donald Trump’s lead is basically twice as large as anyone who’s ever gone on to lose at this point in a primary.
So he’s in a very strong position.
So to close out this poll, for now, it clearly dispels the wishful thinking, if we can call it that, of those who, within the Republican Party, want to see Trump defeated. There are a lot of them. They’re prominent — the Never Trumpers, who have invested both their time and their money into the idea that someone can rise up and beat him. And that, based on this poll, is just not looking likely, unless somehow, Trump is literally disqualified from running through a criminal conviction before the primary is completed.
That’s what it looks like here. There’s not much good news to go off of if you’re hoping to defeat Donald Trump without something from above coming in to shake up the race.
We’ll be right back.
So Nate, “The Times” did a second poll. We just talked about the poll of Republican primary voters. You all simultaneously did a poll of a potential general election in which Trump faces Joe Biden.
And that seems quite plausible, based on what you just told us about the Republican primary and because Biden doesn’t have a very competitive primary. Is that why you felt comfortable with the second poll having just a head-to-head lineup?
That’s exactly right. And I’d add one more thing, which is that voters know these candidates really well. I mean, ordinarily, talking about the general election 15 months out might be a little ridiculous, but we’ve had this election before. These are not unfamiliar characters.
(CHUCKLING) We’ve, literally, had this election before.
So I think it’s OK to start talking about this, given how likely the matchup seems and how familiar the public is with the candidates.
Right. And just to be clear, we do not believe that any of the people in the Democratic race, like your RFK Juniors, are meaningful challengers to Biden at this moment.
We do not. We had RFK at something like 13 percent.
Got it. OK, so what did this second poll, Trump v Biden, find?
Found a tie. Biden and Trump at 43 each.
Which, on its face, does seem like a surprise for the reason you just mentioned, Nate. Biden faced Trump back in 2020 and won. And you’d imagine that Trump’s weaknesses, especially his legal problems, would be amplified in a general election poll far and above how they would be in a primary poll. So what does this tie tell us? What does the poll tell us?
So you’re right. Trump is weak. And that’s what the poll finds. While most Republicans may not think Trump committed crimes, a majority of voters do think he’s committed federal crimes. A majority of voters also think that he was a threat to American democracy after the last presidential election. Majority of voters have an unfavorable view of him, and he lost the last election, as you know.
But Joe Biden also has weaknesses. A majority of voters don’t have a favorable impression of Joe Biden. A majority of voters think that Joe Biden has not done a good job as president. And so there’s a lot of voters who, when confronted with this Biden-versus-Trump matchup, they simply seize up, in polling terms, I suppose.
10 percent of our respondents volunteered that they simply wouldn’t vote, or they would vote for someone else, if Donald Trump and Joe Biden were the candidates. And those weren’t options we listed to them. Those were options they went out of their way to tell us when we presented them with a presidential election matchup that looks increasingly likely.
Hmm. What you seem to be saying is that President Biden hasn’t found a way to exploit Trump’s weaknesses, because he has his own real weaknesses as a candidate. But let’s really explore what those weaknesses are and how they emerge in the poll.
I would put his weaknesses into three pockets. One is something that could be a problem for any president running for re-election, which is that voters don’t like the state of the economy, and they don’t think the country is heading in the right direction. An overwhelming majority of voters still think America is heading off on the wrong track, and voters don’t have a good impression of the economy either.
Even though there’s a case that the economy is getting better, 49 percent of voters in this poll said the economy was poor, to just 2 percent who said it was excellent. And those perceptions of the economy are much worse than they were in the summer of 2020 at the depths of the COVID recession, when businesses were closed and people were staying at home.
Now, voters may not be right about whether the economy is better or worse than it was then. I’ll leave that to the economists to debate. But what’s clear is that Biden is certainly not getting credit for the improving economy yet, and he may still be blamed for an economy that voters simply don’t think is good at all.
The second bucket, I think, is Biden’s age. In our poll, only 1/2 of Democrats think Biden should be renominated, and 1/2 of those Democrats, in an open-ended question, volunteered that they thought Biden’s age or his mental acuity or his health were the reason why they thought someone else should be nominated. And these are Democrats, who presumably should be giving Biden the benefit of the doubt on all of this stuff.
I just want to zero in on this. You’re saying, 1/2 of Democratic voters in this general election poll, voters who, in theory, should be quite faithful to their party’s frontrunner — they don’t think he should be renominated. And when you asked them an open-ended question of why and put it to them, didn’t suggest anything to them —
Didn’t put anything in their mouth on this.
— they volunteered age. I guess we should extrapolate that if Democrats feel that way, so do Independents and Republicans.
That’s always a good rule of thumb. If one party’s base is upset at something about their party, you can only imagine what the Independents and the other side think about it. So I think this is almost certainly a problem for Biden, in some respect.
And I think the question that I have is, could it be the case that Biden’s age is such a severe drag on him, that it prevents voters from seeing him as doing an effective job, even if he is, by many sort of quantitative measures, like the number of pieces of legislation he passes or the state of the economy, simply because he seems too feeble to believe he could really be doing the job well? I think that’s a possibility. How much of his problem is in the second bucket? I don’t know. But I think it’s above zero. Let’s say that.
OK, what’s the third Biden weakness?
The third issue is a little bit different from the first two, and that’s that Biden is not faring well, by traditional Democratic standards, among Black and Hispanic voters. Among all registered voters, Biden only has a 71-to-12 lead among Black voters, and he’s only up 41 to 38 among Hispanic voters. Now, these are small subsamples. Polls will have margin of errors ordinarily, and then when you drill down into smaller groups, those margin of errors get even bigger. But we have seen these problems for Democrats and Joe Biden before. In the midterm election, Black turnout was really quite weak.
And the Democratic challenge among Hispanic voters has been steadily increasing over time. So although these are small samples, they’re part of a story that I think we know is already unfolding. And that is preventing Biden from maximizing his base of Democratic support and getting his number up above 43.
Right. And I’m thinking if you’re a Democrat, there’s a little bit of a deja vu feeling here, because that long story you’re describing is part of what really hurt Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in 2016, which was that Black voters didn’t turn out in large numbers for her.
Honestly, I think this is a notch worse than that. I mean, what we see — what we see since 2016 isn’t simply a low turnout among Black and Hispanic voters. We increasingly see both Democratic turnout declining further, and now, Republicans beginning to actually make gains. So it’s not just that non-white voters seem to be staying home, it’s that some more of the non-white voters who are turning out are supporting Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.
And again, this is just one poll, small sample size, caveat, caveat, caveat. But that is very present here again. And that is holding back Biden’s overall level of support in the poll.
OK, so that helps us understand Biden’s weakness. And given that at this moment, he’s tied with Trump at 43 percent of the electorate that was polled here, that leaves us with, about, 14 percent of the general election voters who seem up for grabs. So what can you tell us about that group of people?
Well, the main thing that characterizes this group is that they don’t like either of these candidates. But to be honest, they’re not a bad group for Democrats on paper, and they’re not a bad group for Joe Biden on paper. This is a group that’s disproportionately young. It’s disproportionately Black and Latino. It’s disproportionately Democratic. And maybe most importantly, it disproportionately supported Joe Biden in the last presidential election.
Now, the fact that they supported Biden last time doesn’t mean they’ll support him again, but it suggests that the Democrats, and Joe Biden specifically, ought to have an easier time than Donald Trump making gains among this other 14 percent of the electorate.
Hmm. So this could ultimately be a decisive group of voters in a general election matchup between Trump and Biden.
It most certainly could be. But they’re not undecided in the sense that they don’t know who these people are and will have to make up their minds. Again, these are people who are sort of recoiling at the thought of having to choose between these two, and maybe not even getting to the point where they can tell us the decision that not only they made last time but that they’ll make again. And there’s also risk, of course, that they really don’t vote or vote for someone else, a third-party candidate, as an expression of that dissatisfaction.
Right. So a general election featuring these two candidates could very much be about not just who earns the affections of this 14 percent of voters who would break a tie, but who this 14 percent dislikes the least.
Yes. And right now, if the election is about who they dislike the least, it’s really good for Joe Biden. I mean, this is a group that’s very hostile towards Donald Trump, even if it doesn’t love Joe Biden by any stretch.
Now, I do want to caution a little bit on how much upside there is for Joe Biden here. If we take these voters and we assume that they’ll vote in 2024 the same way that they voted in 2020, Joe Biden’s lead only grows to 2 points. So it’s not like there’s some landslide around the corner once these 14 percent of voters make up their minds.
Right. That makes me want to touch on something you just mentioned, which is the possibility of a third-party candidate. When you take math like a 2 percent lead or a tie, a decision by a third party to enter this race, whether it’s the Green Party or No Labels, which is thinking of putting up a candidate in this general election — that could prove extremely important, with math this tight.
Yeah, it’s not hard to imagine how a minor-party candidate or a series of minor-party candidates could attract considerable support. Back in 2016, the minor-party candidates got something like 6 percent of the vote. The voters are not as negative on Biden or Trump as they were on Clinton and Trump back in 2016, but there are shades of 2016 here, where the voters near the center of the electorate really don’t like either of these people, which was not true in 2020, where most voters did have a favorable view of Joe Biden.
So Nate, how are you thinking about the rest of this campaign, given the snapshot of the race that we have just taken with these polls this many months before people start voting?
To me, the biggest takeaway is that it means that all of the events of the last few years — the Stop the Steal movement, the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe versus Wade, all of these criminal indictments — have not disqualified Donald Trump, at least not when he’s facing a Joe Biden with a 39 percent approval rating. And this race is competitive, and at least right now, the Democrats have work cut out ahead of them, and the events of the last three years haven’t brought this race to an early end as some might have thought.
And if you’re Joe Biden and you see this poll — and like DeSantis and his staff, you’ve seen this poll — what do you do in response to it?
I think that if you’re the Biden campaign, your task is fairly straightforward, not necessarily to pull off, but at least to identify. You’ve got to convince voters the economy is good and hope that the news continues to be good enough to, potentially, boost those numbers further. You have to persuade voters that you’re doing a decent job. And they’ll probably never persuade people that you’re not too old to be president, but at least persuade them that you’re good enough to lead the country.
And then, third, you have to remind voters of the reasons they didn’t support Donald Trump last time and why they continue not to him in our poll — that a majority of voters don’t have a favorable view of the guy, think that he’s a threat to democracy, and think that he’s committed serious crimes. Whether Biden can execute on that easily is not the same as saying that the path is open, of course. But I think that path is straightforward.
On the Trump side of the ledger, I think that it’s a little weirder to think about what Trump needs to do in the same sort of terms. Because the poll doesn’t really suggest that he has an obvious path to, like, 51 percent of the vote or something. And I find it hard to believe that the people who believe he’s a criminal or who believe that he’s a threat to democracy can be talked out of that too easily with the right words on the trail.
But what you can do is continue to keep your path open by continuing to reinforce Biden’s weaknesses. You can say that Hunter Biden and Joe Biden are also involved in criminal conspiracies. You can continue to appear as a vigorous and energetic candidate that maybe offers a strong contrast to Joe Biden’s age.
You can argue that the economy isn’t good and that prices are higher and so on. And that may not be a path to a majority. Donald Trump has never won a majority. But does it keep a path open to another narrow victory in these battleground states? Maybe it does.
Well, Nate, as always, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Wednesday, jurors imposed a sentence of death on the gunman who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 — a massacre that is considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history.
The gunman, who repeatedly expressed anti-Semitism in online postings, did not dispute his guilt during the trial, but his lawyers argued that he should be spared the death penalty because of a history of psychiatric problems and a troubled childhood — an argument that the jury rejected.
Today’s episode was produced by Rikki Novetsky, Stella Tan, Clare Toeniskoetter, and Mary Wilson. It was edited by Liz O. Baylen and Paige Cowett, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Elisheba Ittoop, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.