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Court Hasn’t Yet Crippled Trump’s Lead Over Biden

Donald Trump has been indicted in four separate criminal cases, tethered to the courtroom for the past month, and confronted by the embarrassing testimony of not just the former White House officials who worked for him but also by the porn star who allegedly had sex with him.

Trump still leads, despite being in court

And yet he still leads in the polls. The long-awaited prosecutions, which Republicans condemned and Democrats cheered, have not cut him down as he seeks a return to the White House. In fact, President Biden has not surpassed Trump a single time this year in the RealClearPolitics Poll Average. Six months from the election, Trump leads Biden 46% to 44.9%.

The courtroom, at least for now, has not proved an insurmountable obstacle. “It just looks bad, and the voters are getting it,” Trump pollster John McLaughlin told RCP. “They don’t like the idea that the courts are deciding the presidential election.”

It certainly hasn’t crippled the campaign or chastened the candidate.

The former president called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg “Fat Alvin,” New York Judge Juan Merchan “corrupt,” and the entire hush money case a “sham.” All of this came in short order at a New Jersey rally last weekend and despite a gag order issued by the judge. Trump has already been found in contempt of court for discussing the trial and now faces the possibility of jail time for further violations.

At Trump’s campaign headquarters, meanwhile, a sense of optimism, bolstered by polling data, has emerged from under the shadow of the indictments. “We’re expanding the map,” pollster Tony Fabrizio told donors gathered in Palm Beach, Florida, during remarks that were first reported by Marc Caputo of The Bulwark and confirmed by RCP.

The truth comes out

Inside the Fabrizio slide deck: the RCP Poll Average from the seven swing states expected to decide the election – Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Trump has an inside-the-margin-of-error lead over Biden in each contest, a healthy sign for any challenger, let alone a candidate that was once expected to buckle under legal pressure.

“The truth about Joe Biden’s witch hunts against President Trump is being revealed and reflected in the polls,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, before adding that the trial “is an epic backfire.”

New polling from New York Times/Siena College buoyed optimism among conservatives. The survey showed virtually no change since last November, months before the campaign trail and courtroom began to blend. Among registered voters, the survey found Trump leading Biden 48% to 42% in a head-to-head matchup.

From the Biden campaign: pooh, pooh

The Biden campaign was quick to downplay those numbers, with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin insisting that “the only consistency in recent public polls is inconsistency.”

“These results need to be weighed against the 30-plus polls that show Biden up and gaining – which is exactly why drawing broad conclusions about the race based on results from one poll is a mistake,” Garin said in a statement to reporters. “The reality is that many voters are not paying close attention to the election and have not started making up their minds – a dynamic also reflected in today’s poll. These voters will decide this election, and only the Biden campaign is doing the work to win them over.”

There has been some variation. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from early this month had Biden leading by a point among registered voters while an NPR/Marist Institute survey conducted around the same timeframe had the president up by two.

All this feels familiar to the Biden campaign, from the rocky poll numbers to the increasingly congealing conventional wisdom that the Democrat doesn’t have a chance. Biden was so frustrated by premature obituaries during the 2020 primary season that he told the skeptical editorial board of the New York Times, “I ain’t dead and I’m not going to die!” The Times endorsed his opponents.

Has Biden miscalculated this time?

It wouldn’t be the last time, either. Biden walked into the East Room at the White House after the midterms like a man crashing his own wake. “While the press and the pundits were predicting a giant red wave,” he said in November 2022, “it didn’t happen.” Then he added, “I know you were somewhat miffed by my obsessant optimism, but I felt good during the whole process.”

Biden’s optimism apparently remains, but the courtroom doesn’t seem to be the source of the Democrats’ salvation. Delays, postponements, and general legal wrangling make it increasingly likely that the only case Trump faces before Election Day is the hush money case in Manhattan, not the RICO case in Georgia centered around the 2020 election or either of the two federal cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith.

“The Democrats’ strategy was to win the primary for Trump with this lawfare and then have him so weakened by the lawfare that he would get crushed in the general election,” said Mike Davis, the founder of the conservative Article III project which has emerged as one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders. “So, we turned lemons into lemonade.”

First Brett Kavanaugh, now Donald Trump

A longtime Senate aide who helped shepherd the nominations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to confirmation, Davis likened the numerous charges against Trump to the many accusations – some of them quite dubious – against Kavanaugh. Rather than pick apart each accusation individually, he said of the Kavanaugh battle, “I lumped them all together and ran the dead chicken strategy.”

The goal of the poultry-inspired gambit: deterrence. As explained by Davis, the strategy is to make an opponent own their attacks and eventually become sick of them. “When dogs killed chickens, you would wrap those dead chickens around the dog’s necks,” he told the New York Post of the tactic now popular on the right. “And as those chickens rotted around those dogs’ necks, those dogs lost the taste for chicken.”

“We’ve been doing the same thing with this lawfare,” he told RCP, explaining how Trump allies have emphasized, for instance, how the daughter of the New York judge overseeing the hush money case worked as a Democratic fundraiser, rather than getting into the legal weeds of each and every charge against the former president. It is the sort of approach that suits the famous defendant.

Changing the perception

Trump has been in the habit of beginning, or ending, most trial days with a press conference. Fiery posts on Truth Social, his Twitter analog, follow (regardless of admonishments from the court). Photo ops are common: Most recently Trump left court, picked up pizza, and made a delivery to a fire station in Midtown Manhattan.

And it has been working. The Trump campaign has worked overtime to dismiss the case as a “witch hunt.” Simultaneously, they have cast Biden as weak in the face of global enemies and too incompetent to address domestic challenges. Appealing to voters Trump HQ refers to as “safety moms,” suburban women more concerned with the well-being of their children than partisan battles, they believe, could even put Minnesota and Virginia in play.

If the polls are accurate, Trump already appears on the cusp of historic gains with black voters. He won 8% of the black vote in 2016 and then 12% in 2020, hardly a majority but still a significant gain that eroded a key Democratic voting bloc. The campaign now sees winning as much as 20% of black voters as within the realm of possibility, numbers not seen by a Republican president since Richard Nixon in 1960.

Trump is currently attracting 23% of the black vote, compared to Biden’s 63%, in the NYT/Siena poll.

The legal proceedings have not stopped Trump

So the legal proceedings, at least for now, have not crippled Trump. He has not seen a drop in his poll numbers, and the $1,000 fines for violating a court gag order are hardly an obstacle on the campaign trail. Judge Merchan has warned, however, that if the former president continues to defy the court, he could land himself in jail.

A Trump official warned that this also would backfire and would end up casting Trump as “the Nelson Mandela of America” ahead of an election.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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