Can Trump really go all the way?
Amelie Thompson, Online Editor-in-Chief, examines how Trump’s legal issues impact his chances of re-election.
When Donald J. Trump announced his bid for President in June 2015, US politics began to become marked by unprecedented events, controversies and conspiracy theories. Though many believed, or hoped, that these would end with his defeat in 2020, the Capitol Riots and the ensuing chaos only stoked further polarisation, and embedded Trump as a key political figure. Thus, the announcement of the ‘Trump 2024’ campaign did not come as a great surprise, but it did leave people with the question: can a formerly defeated President really win again?
There are several factors to indicate that a Trump victory is unlikely. Firstly, in the history of US Presidents, only one has ever succeeded in securing a non-consecutive second term. Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 Presidential election yet returned to the White House in 1892, albeit in a significantly different context. In 1892, while the 15th Amendment had been ratified and black men technically had the right to vote, Jim Crow laws meant that most black men were oppressed, and women could not vote at all. Also, while Cleveland lost the 1888 election, he won the popular vote, a feat that Trump could not replicate in 2020. The political circumstances are so different that Trump can take little solace in Cleveland’s example.
Typically, a candidate running for a second term must fight contention over previous policy failures. For Trump, this includes his failure to repeal the Democrats’ health reforms and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the more pressing hurdle for Trump to overcome is the range of legal issues that he finds himself embroiled in.
Last month saw the former President fined $5m when a civil jury found him liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of writer E Jean Carroll. Carroll has now sued him for a further $10 million due to further alleged defamation – including Trump’s recent comment in a town hall debate that she was a “wack job”. The trial date has been set for January.
This is not the only court case that Trump will face in early 2024 – at a time when he is supposed to be running in the Republican primaries. In March he will be tried in New York County with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records over hush money payments to an adult film star. Yet, these charges are not as serious as his Miami indictment with 37 felony counts, including unauthorised retention of national defence files and obstruction of justice. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges, meaning that in the latter case, a conviction could lead to imprisonment. He now faces the damning statistic that of all the US federal cases that go to trial, 83 per cent end with a conviction.
There are two further cases that could be brought against the former President. The first of these relates to his alleged role in inciting the 6 January 2021 Riots – when a large group of Republicans and far-right activists violently stormed Washington’s Capitol Building in an attempt to stop the confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. The other potential case also concerns the 2020 election, as prosecutors are currently exploring whether Trump acted illegally in Georgia to try and overturn his marginal loss in the state. The investigation was instigated following the disclosure of an hour-long phone call between Trump and Georgia’s top election official on 2 January 2021.
Despite these issues, when you factor in Trump voters’ cult-like support and certain constitutional loopholes, the 45th President’s re-election chances appear less unlikely. Even if Trump were to be given a prison sentence, it does not mean he can’t run in 2024. Although convicted felons cannot vote in the US, there are no legal obstacles to stop them from running for President. In fact, in the 1920 election, Eugene V. Debs won nearly one million votes, despite being in prison at the time.
Although convicted felons cannot vote in the US, there are no legal obstacles to stop them from running for President
The polls show that Trump’s indictments and charges are not as great a hindrance to his support as one might expect. The former President has tried hard to politicise his legal issues – repeatedly calling them a ‘witch hunt’ – and even claiming that his Miami indictment was “destroying the country”, and was part of the wider ‘persecution’ of Christians, traditionalists and pro-life activists.
Fox News has played a key role in exacerbating these conspiracy theories. When recently displaying pictures of a Biden speech, the channel’s under-image caption read, “Wannabe dictator speaks at White House after having his political rival arrested”. Such action is clearly having an effect – 81 per cent of self-identified Republicans believe that politics is driving Trump’s legal persecution, and the Trump campaign claims they have raised more than $7 million in funding since the Miami indictment.
The first stage to becoming President is winning the party primaries. Based on current polling, it seems highly likely that Trump will win the Republican candidacy. His main competitor, Ron DeSantis, has some support due to his hardline policies against LGBTQ rights, yet has failed to enthuse a majority of the GOP, with an average of 20 per cent support in primary polls. Trump is polling 30 points ahead of DeSantis at around 50 per cent, and three-quarters of Republican primary voters have a favourable opinion of him. Since his Miami indictment, Trump’s support from his party has actually increased.
While support from Republican party members has not faltered despite Trump’s controversies, it is less certain how much support he can expect from the general population. From an average of US polls, Trump’s disapproval rate is currently around 55 per cent. However, his likely competitor Joe Biden’s disapproval rate is only marginally lower, at 54.4 per cent.
There was speculation over whether the current President would stand again, as by the end of a prospective second term, he would be 86 years old. His age and the gaffes it has caused contribute to Biden’s high disapproval rate – with his narrow advantage over Trump showing how there is currently no clear favourite in the likely 2024 rivalry.
In fact, as of Monday 12th June, when Morning Consult pollsters were asked if they would vote for Trump or Biden if the 2024 presidential election was held today, both politicians were tied around 42 per cent support each. Though this poll came before Trump’s plea of not guilty on his Miami indictment, it remains a notable indicator of how tight the 2024 race is likely to be, granted that Trump secures the likely Republican primary victory. Trump’s potential re-election into the highest office in the US cannot be ruled out.
Trump’s potential re-election into the highest office in the US cannot be ruled out.
Based on Trump’s historic role in US politics, it is likely that controversies will continue to unfold. Whether these controversies will thwart the 45th President’s chances of a second term is yet to be seen, and depends on potential convictions and further lawsuits. Yet, one thing is clear: Trump’s power to mobilise a base of support cannot be underestimated.