How do Americans think Donald Trump is being treated by the criminal justice system?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
September 14, 2023, 5:31 PM GMT+0

Recent polling by the Economist/YouGov has found that a growing share of Republican supporters of Donald Trump view criminal justice reform as a very important issue, a shift that could be prompted in part by the four legal cases pending against him. This week's poll explores how Americans feel Trump is being treated by the criminal justice system, as well as how his chances of getting a fair trial differ from other defendants. Results show that while most Americans believe Trump should be treated fairly by the law, many believe this is not currently the case, with most Democrats saying he is being treated more leniently than others and most Republicans saying he is being treated more harshly. Despite his legal troubles, however, Trump remains the frontrunner in the GOP presidential race and few Republicans say they would be disappointed by his nomination. Or perhaps his lead is in part because of his legal troubles: Republicans are nearly twice as likely to say they will have a positive effect on his campaign than a negative one.

Trump's treatment by the criminal justice system

Americans are divided in their views on how the criminal justice system is treating Trump: 73% of Republicans say he is being treated more harshly than other people, compared to 7% of Democrats. Just 10% of Republicans but 59% of Democrats say Trump is being treated more leniently. Overall, only 14% of Americans think he is being treated equally to other people.

Most Americans (72%) agree that Donald Trump should be treated equally to other people by the criminal justice system, including majorities of Democrats (69%) and Republicans (83%). One in five Democrats (22%) and 4% of Republicans say they think Trump should be treated more harshly than others.

Who can get a fair trial in the U.S.? Republicans and Democrats have different views on this question, especially when it comes to Trump. Like most Republicans (68%), most Democrats (72%) believe that an ordinary defendant is very or somewhat likely to get a fair trial. Democrats are more likely than Republicans (71% vs. 62%) to believe it is likely that a “wealthy and powerful” defendant will get a fair trial, and Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to believe Donald Trump will get a fair trial in most of his cases (73% vs. 24%).

Half of Republicans expect the four criminal cases pending against Donald Trump to have a very or somewhat positive (48%) impact on his 2024 campaign, while only 26% expect the impact to be very or somewhat negative. This is consistent with recent polls of Republicans, including this one, that show Trump continues to be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination by wide margins. Few Democrats believe Trump's legal situation will have a positive effect (14%); 47% believe it will be negative.

Trump's standing in the 2024 GOP primary

Trump remains the top choice of a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents (53%) when it comes to who they would vote for in their state's primary if it were held today. Trump is currently 39 percentage points ahead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is the first choice of just 14%. Compared to how Trump fares among Republicans and Republican-leaners overall, he does particularly well among women age 45 and older: 65% would vote for him.

There has not been much change in support from two weeks ago, just after the first Republican debate. All other candidates remain in single digits, each with less than half of DeSantis's support: Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy gets 6% and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence each get 5%.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaners who think the legal cases against Trump will have a positive impact on his campaign, 67% name him as their first choice. That figure is 32% among those who say the cases will have a negative impact on his campaign.

As for whom Republicans and Republican-leaners would be disappointed to have as their nominee, about half select each of Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. About one in five would be disappointed in each of the nomination of Trump, DeSantis, radio host Larry Elder, Ramaswamy, or Haley.

See the toplines and crosstabs from the Economist/YouGov poll conducted on September 10 - 12, 2023 among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens.

Methodology: Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Getty