Would a Trump conviction move his voters? Evidence from past and present polls

February 12, 2024, 9:07 PM GMT+0

With Republican primary voters rallying around former President Donald Trump as their likely nominee, the question of how four criminal cases currently pending against him might affect voter preferences in November looms large.

Yahoo News/YouGov surveys have tracked voter preferences in a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden, showing a one-point Trump edge (45% to 44%) among registered voters on the poll completed in late January, and a tie (44%) on the average of all surveys conducted since August. In addition, four recent surveys (conducted in August, September, and December 2023 and January 2024) also asked a hypothetical question later in the interview: How would respondents vote “if Trump is convicted of a serious crime in the coming months, and he is the GOP nominee for president”? On each of the four polls, support for Trump was lower on the hypothetical question, giving Biden a narrow lead among all registered voters, ranging from 4 to 9 percentage points. The average result across the four surveys was a Biden lead over Trump of 46% to 40% — in the hypothetical scenario in which Trump is convicted of a serious crime.

That shift, along with similar findings from other pollsters, implies potential trouble for Trump, but is it the “Achilles’ heel” that some speculate? Caution is always called for when polls ask hypothetical questions, but a lesson from the Bill Clinton impeachment 25 years ago suggests we ought to be especially wary of the latest results about potential Trump convictions.

In December 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives approved articles of impeachment against President Clinton, charging him with lying under oath and obstructing justice in connection with a sexual harassment lawsuit and an affair with an unpaid intern.

Throughout that year, CBS News tracked opinions about Clinton and the impeachment process. Like other pollsters, CBS News found consistently high approval of Clinton during 1998 (varying between 59% and 72% of Americans from February to December who approved of his job performance) and support for a U.S. House vote in favor of impeachment varying between 30% and 40% (from October to December).

In the fall of 1998 and early 1999, CBS News also asked a straightforward question about whether Clinton should resign: “Given what you know right now, do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton finished his term as president?”

But just prior to the House impeachment vote a CBS News poll also followed up with a hypothetical question: “If the full House votes to send impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial, then do you think it would be better for the country if Bill Clinton resigned from office, or not?”

On the initial question, in the months leading up to the impeachment vote, far fewer wanted Clinton to resign (varying between 23% and 38%) than finish his term as president (varying between 59% and 73%; results were obtained by YouGov from the Roper Center archives).

But support for resignation was much higher on the hypothetical question: On a survey conducted December 14–17, 1998, 41% said they favored Clinton’s resignation in the event the House “votes to send impeachment articles to the Senate for a trial,” 12 points more than had said earlier in the same survey, absent the hypothetical, that it would be better for the country if Clinton resigned (29%). A second CBS tracking poll conducted a day later found a similar result, showing support for Clinton’s resignation to be 13 points higher on the hypothetical question.

In other words, the hypothetical results were much different. Taken at face value, they seemed to forecast that support for Clinton’s resignation would increase significantly if the U.S. House actually voted to send impeachment articles to the Senate.

But when the House did just that, on December 19, 1998, CBS News conducted an immediate follow-up survey, and support for resignation did not increase now that the hypothetical House action on impeachment had occurred. Just 31% said it would be better for the country if Clinton resigned (and 66% said it would be better if he finished out his term) a near match of the average results on the surveys conducted in the months leading up to the impeachment vote (31% resign, 65% finish out term).

Not only did the hypothetical increase in support for Clinton’s resignation fail to materialize, it even ticked down a few percentage points on two successive CBS News surveys conducted a few weeks later (28% on Jan. 1–3, 1999 and 29% on Jan. 10–13, 1999) as the impeachment process moved forward in the Senate.

"One of the notable things about 1998 was the expectation that —throughout the year — Clinton would lose support," recalls Kathy Frankovic, then director of surveys for CBS News, now a consultant for YouGov. "The expectation of change made 1998 our busiest year in terms of the number of polls we did, [setting] a record that I’m not sure has yet been surpassed at CBS News."

When the change that many were expecting didn't materialize following the impeachment vote, some of Frankovic's colleagues "felt cheated by the public." Yet the lack of change was consistent with Clinton’s solid support, which had held up that year throughout all the charges, investigations, and revelations.

One important lesson is to apply "a healthy and justified skepticism about hypothetical questions," as Frankovic puts it. Perhaps rather than treating such questions as literal forecasts, we should focus on what they tell us about voter attitudes right now. Consider the implications of the results to our hypothetical questions about 2024 vote preference “if Trump is convicted of a serious crime.”

First, the vast majority of registered voters who currently prefer Trump (89%) say they would still vote for him in 2024 even if he is convicted. That loyalty is likely to be taken into account by Republican officeholders. If they line up in support of Trump after a conviction, their endorsement could influence more-conflicted Trump supporters to do the same.

Second, most of the net shift in the margins comes from movement away from Trump — a net 4 percentage points, on average, across the four surveys. Biden support increases by just a single point, on average, coming mostly from those currently undecided. Just one half of one percent of registered voters say they would shift from Trump to Biden on these hypothetical questions.

Third, since we have asked the same questions on four surveys, we have a sample of 219 respondents who support Trump but say they would not support him “if convicted of a serious crime.” This allows us to identify statistically meaningful differences between those who step back from Trump on the hypothetical question and those who remain supportive:

  • 42% describe themselves as moderate (36%) or liberal (6%) compared to just 22% of those who stay with Trump.
  • 40% initially identify as Independents (30%) or Democrats (10%) compared to just 25% of those who stay with Trump.
  • 28% say they either voted for Biden (15%) or did not vote (13%) in 2020 compared to just 8% of those who stay with Trump.
  • 38% either have a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion of Trump (28%) or say they don’t know (10%) compared to just 11% combined for those who stay with Trump.
  • Only 31% say they follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time, compared to 59% of those who stay with Trump.
  • 51% are between the ages of 18 and 44, compared to 26% of those who stay with Trump.

So while likely not a prediction of the outcome, these results do suggest the kinds of Trump backers who are conflicted and whose support might wane in the event of a conviction. Or might not.

"The country has been locked into their opinions about Trump (and Biden) and those opinions may not change — despite people’s answers to hypothetical questions,” Frankovic says. “It’s possible for people to say a conviction would change their minds, but when/if [a conviction] happens, it’s possible (even likely) that it won’t matter at all."

Yahoo News/YouGov Methodology: The Yahoo! News surveys were conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative samples of U.S. adults interviewed online between August 17-21, 2023 (1,665 adults), September 14-18, 2023 (1,636 adults), December 14-18, 2023 (1,533 adults) and January 25-29, 2024 (1,594 adults).

The samples were 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, 27% Republican). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. Information on the margin of error and the range, mean, and standard deviation of the weights is available for each survey via the links above.