How will Trump's hush money trial impact the 2024 election?

Trump could get convicted, but it may not matter to voters.

May 28, 2024, 4:29 PM

Welcome to 538's politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

tia.yang (Tia Yang, senior editor): Since April 15, former President Donald Trump has been splitting time between the campaign trail and a criminal trial, as the defendant in the first of four criminal cases against him — this one related to allegations that he falsified business records linked to hush money payments made by his then-attorney Michael Cohen in 2016 to adult film star Stormy Daniels, to cover up an earlier affair between Daniels and Trump.

Closing arguments in that trial are happening today, which means the jury could reach a verdict as soon as this week. So, what's stood out to you all most about how the trial has gone so far? And what's the most likely outcome here?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): Disclaimer: 538 does not have a forecast for the Trump trial. (That would be cool, though.) But based on what I've read from people who, unlike me, are actual legal experts, it seems like the most likely outcomes are either that Trump will be convicted or that the jury won't be able to agree on a verdict, which would mean a mistrial.

It seems pretty unlikely that 12 jurors will all agree that Trump is not guilty, considering some of the open-and-shut facts of the case and the fact that the New York jury pool is probably not very Trump-friendly.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, politics reporter): From reading the coverage of the trial, I've honestly had a hard time figuring out what the defense's strategy is. It seems to be largely focused on discrediting Daniels and Cohen, but it seems really impossible to argue at this point that Trump didn't have sex with Daniels and didn't give Cohen money to reimburse him for buying her silence, which is really the crux of the case, no? I am clearly not a legal expert, but neither are the members of the jury, so I am really curious to see how they interpreted all the testimony.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): My understanding, Kaleigh, is to be found guilty of the felony charges he's facing, the jury has to believe that he did all that in order to cover up that he committed other crimes — like breaking election laws. It's really complicated, and I think makes a hung jury more likely. And the (dirty, kind of astonishing) facts of the case were already well-known, so I don't know if the trial re-airing those facts will make a huge difference to voters.

nrakich: It seems like the trial might turn on whether jurors believe Cohen is a credible witness. (As we know, he has previously admitted to lying under oath to Congress.) If even one juror is persuaded that he's not credible, that could constitute reasonable doubt, which could lead to a hung jury.

Monica Potts: That's very true, Nathaniel! Also, we've seen people's willingness to forgive Trump's actions shift in the past.

tia.yang: I wanted to touch on Trump's own actions during the trial as well. He's made some headlines for appearing disengaged, or even falling asleep, in court. That's a contrast from his usual blustery persona, including in previous civil trials and even the start of this one, characterized by visible anger in the courtroom and social media outbursts. He also chose not to testify on his own behalf. Is this a strategy from him to appear aloof? Is it an admission that past outbursts may have hurt him? Is it a bad look?

kaleigh: Oh, he is still having social media outbursts … Trump has been writing lengthy posts on Truth Social — his social media site that he had built after getting kicked off Twitter (now X) — calling the trial "rigged," disparaging the judge, and asserting that the charges and trial are actually an attempt to steal the election from him.

On Monday afternoon, for example, he wrote that the case against him was "FAKE & MADE UP" by "a Soros backed failed D.A., and the Judge himself," adding: "according to virtually all Legal Scholars and Experts, THERE IS NO CRIME OR CASE against President Trump, and if there was it should have been brought seven years ago, not in the middle of his Campaign for President. Prosecutorial Misconduct. Election Interference!"

That's just a taste of the kind of posts he's been sharing throughout the trial, alongside the usual fare of campaign endorsements and clips of favorable media.

tia.yang: True — attacking his enemies on social media is one thing that he's always consistent about … These posts are the latest of many that insult or threaten judges, prosecutors and even court staff involved in cases against him.

Monica Potts: Regarding falling asleep, Trump has played the "I'm just closing my eyes" defense. I think that how voters respond to Trump is already so baked in that how voters respond to his actions will largely be determined by how they already feel about him. What's interesting to me is that, in an election where the age of candidates is a concern for voters, things like falling asleep in court and having outbursts the way that Trump does doesn't seem to read as "age" to voters.

nrakich: Yeah, I don't really think Trump is playing three-dimensional chess here. But I agree, Monica, Trump has a reputation for ... I guess I'd call it friskiness? ... out on the campaign trail that helps neutralize any perceptions that he's an old man in the courtroom.

Monica Potts: I'd add that whatever happens, I foresee Trump proclaiming it as a victory for him and his campaign, and a sizable portion of his most ardent supporters believing him.

nrakich: Haha, how would that work if he's convicted?

tia.yang: Partisan witch hunt! He'll argue that his political opponents can't beat him fair and square so they're turning to legal attacks as a distraction. We saw that more directly when he was facing legal attempts to throw him off the ballot earlier this year, but it's also part of the overall narrative he's crafted around the many legal cases against him.

Monica Potts: What Tia said! And I just know from watching Trump over the past almost decade (!) that he will say that he's won no matter what and just keep pressing forward as if that's true. Like when he just kept claiming he had the biggest inauguration crowd, he won the popular vote, etc. He'll just try to press on. And 84 percent of Republicans believe the charges against him are motivated by partisanship, according to an AtlasIntel poll from February.

nrakich: I dunno ... I mean, of course he'll try to claim that. But a conviction is not a win, and anyone can see that, even Trump's fans.

I think the more interesting question is if a hung jury will be perceived as a win for Trump since it's not a conviction.

tia.yang: How Americans are perceiving all this brings us to the million-dollar question (proverbially — I didn't check the betting markets): What impact could the trial outcome, or trial coverage more broadly, have on Trump's presidential prospects?

kaleigh: I've always been suspicious about how much this trial, or even a conviction, would damage Trump among his base, who have already accepted his framing that this is nothing more than fabricated charges in pursuit of political persecution. The ever-present question for this (and the whole 2024 presidential election, to be honest) is whether — and how much — a conviction would impact undecided and swing voters.

Monica Potts: That's true, Kaleigh. And a recent Ipsos/Politico poll found that a guilty finding might hurt Trump with independents. More than a third said a guilty verdict would make them less likely to support him in November.

nrakich: You always have to be careful with those more-or-less-likely-to-vote polls, though. A lot of people who say a conviction would make them less likely to vote for Trump were probably never going to vote for him in the first place. Plus, people are really bad at predicting what is actually going to sway their vote in the end. They might say a conviction turns them off Trump a little, but still vote for him in the end.

kaleigh: True. "Less likely to vote for" does not mean "absolutely will not vote for."

tia.yang: In this year's contest between historically unpopular candidates, voter enthusiasm has been low, and it seems like many voters have simply not been paying attention to the campaigns at all. Is that also true of this trial?

nrakich: Yeah, Americans seem kind of bored with his trial. In fact, that was the most common answer when YouGov/Yahoo News asked Americans how they felt about it earlier this month: 31 percent said they were bored, while only 26 percent said they were interested.

And according to CNN/SSRS, only 13 percent of Americans said they were following the trial very closely. Another 36 percent said they were following it somewhat closely, but of course, the meaning of "somewhat" is open to each respondent's interpretation — and they're probably inclined to round up. "Oh, I saw something on CNN about that ... Yeah, I'm following it somewhat closely."

kaleigh: I think a few things are working in Trump's favor on that front, Nathaniel. First, the trial cannot be broadcast. With limited attention spans and our screen-driven society, having to read what's going on and look at courtroom sketches is just less engaging for a lot of people.

Second, a lot, if not all, of the "juicy" scandalous bits of testimony that would normally have people glued to their feeds is already common knowledge. Blame Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo — who broke the hush money story in 2018 — for being too good of reporters, I guess.

Monica Potts: Yes, I agree, Kaleigh. People have known the facts of this case for a long time, and it's already baked into how they feel about Trump.

nrakich: I'm writing an article on this for after we get the verdict, so I don't want to scoop myself too much here, but basically I think a conviction could temporarily depress Trump's standing in the polls — but President Joe Biden wouldn't necessarily gain. For example, that same poll from YouGov/Yahoo News had the presidential race tied 45 percent to 45 percent nationally, with 5 percent not sure.

But when the poll asked people who they would support if Trump is convicted, those numbers changed to 46 percent for Biden and 39 percent for Trump, with 9 percent not sure. In other words, Biden's support barely changed, but a few Trump supporters switched from Trump to undecided. Those voters could maybe be winnable for Biden ... but my personal guess would be that they eventually find their way back to Trump.

Just look at what happened after Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape was released in October 2016. His support dropped by about 1 point in 538's national polling average at the time. But by the end of the month, he was polling better than at any other point in the campaign.

kaleigh: They don't call him Teflon Don for nothing.

What's truly wild to me is how quotidian this trial feels. Can you imagine a similar scenario happening to any other president and the public being bored by it and not even paying attention? Trump has so completely upended the status quo for so long, and done so many outrageous acts, that people have truly become numb to it. It's really remarkable that we have all become so accustomed to the unprecedented.

tia.yang: I agree, Kaleigh. This trial seems to be flying under the radar as much as it could under the circumstances, and the public seems pretty desensitized to it.

Nathaniel's point about the "Access Hollywood" tape scandal is also a good parallel here, since that scandal and the hush money case are closely related. Daniels's lawyer said during the trial that interest in Daniels's allegations against Trump only gained traction after that scandal brought some of Trump's past indiscretions into the spotlight, and the hush money payment was negotiated in the wake of the "Access Hollywood" story breaking. Obviously, past indiscretions didn't hurt Trump's election prospects back then.

What about the other cases against Trump, though? Trump was impeached twice for his conduct while serving as president, and he faces three other indictments tied to his actions following the 2020 election and the end of his presidency: one related to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, one related to attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and one related to the alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office.

Could these other cases — which are more recent and directly related to the powers of the presidency — be more concerning to voters?

nrakich: Sure. Plenty of polls last year, when the indictments were coming out, indicated that voters considered the New York case to be the least serious of Trump's cases. According to a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from last July, 71 percent of registered voters thought conspiring to overturn the results of a presidential election was a serious crime, and 64 percent said the same thing about taking classified documents and obstructing efforts to retrieve them. Meanwhile, only 50 percent said falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments was a serious crime.

But the problem for Democrats is, it doesn't look like any of the trials in Trump's other cases will happen before the election.

Monica Potts: Democrats and voters who lean toward Democrats are especially worried about Jan. 6 and other attempts to overturn the 2020 election. But the question is whether that turns into votes for Biden and Democrats. When we've heard from voters, threats to democracy do push some of them toward Biden. But those things may already be baked in for many voters. I think the bigger issue is, like Kaleigh and Nathaniel said, a lot of voters have checked out. They've seen Trump versus Biden play out before, and they're not amped about a rematch.

tia.yang: Feels weird to ask given that we established an acquittal here is the least likely outcome but ... On the other side of the coin, is it possible this trial actually helps Trump?

nrakich: No, I don't think so. A couple of pollsters, including Léger and Marquette University Law School, have asked how people would vote if Trump were found not guilty, and the results look basically identical to the regular horse-race question.

tia.yang: When it comes to Trump's immunity to would-be scandal, I keep thinking about the time that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Trump's first criminal indictment actually hurt DeSantis's primary bid against Trump. That indictment (for this same hush money case) seemed to galvanize support around the former president among the Republican base, who largely support Trump and see all the legal challenges against him as part of a politically motivated witch hunt. That's obviously less of a concern for Biden and Democrats … Though if Trump paints the entire trial as a distraction or circus, I could see that resonating with some independent or swing voters.

But if voters' feelings on Trump's guilt and the trial itself are pretty baked in, as Monica has noted, what about other ways this could impact the campaign, like time and money? Legal representation isn't cheap, and Politico reported last month that Trump's leadership PAC had spent nearly $60 million on legal consulting since the start of 2023.

And obviously, dozing off in a courtroom isn't how presidential candidates are typically spending their time six months before the election.

Monica Potts: I do think draining money and attention and time is not great for Trump. I just don't know how much it will affect the campaign. Nothing about Trump's campaigning has been especially typical in the past.

nrakich: I don't really think the campaigning aspect matters. This isn't October, when the candidates are holding a rally a day. Trump has been able to hold rallies, like last week's widely publicized event in the Bronx, in between court appearances. And besides ... [whispers] campaign visits don't really matter.

The financial side of it is more interesting. I tend to think there will be basically limitless amounts of money behind the Republican nominee in the end. But Trump does have considerably less money than Biden right now, and if that persists ...

kaleigh: It's true. On the one hand he has had to use campaign funds he would probably rather spend on, y'know, campaigning. But on the other hand, the trial has provided great fodder for fundraising — he reportedly raised $1.6 million on the first day of the trial — so it's hard to say if it's a net negative.

tia.yang: So basically, it took us about an hour of chatting to name a single way this could hurt Trump — maybe.