Trump Guilty Verdict Adds Twist to 2024 Race: A Convicted Felon

(Bloomberg) -- The guilty verdict in Donald Trump’s Manhattan criminal trial injects an explosive and unpredictable new variable into a presidential race locked in stasis, distinguished primarily by voter frustrations with their choice of two well-known and unpopular major candidates.

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After running in largely non-competitive and drama-free primary races, President Joe Biden and Trump now enter the general election campaign navigating a sudden and unprecedented scenario in US political history: the leading candidate in the presidential race is a convicted felon.

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Such a seismic development almost certainly would have changed the trajectory of the presidential race in the past, and it still might. Yet few experts are confident it will.

The former president, they note, has survived two impeachments and numerous other scandals and still leads Biden in most polls.

“You need a high-powered microscope to see the effects of any big news events on the race,” said Michael Podhorzer, the former political director of the AFL-CIO.

Presidential campaign strategists in both parties agree that the guilty verdict provides a new opening for Biden, whose lackluster performance and sagging poll numbers are a source of rising concern among many Democratic lawmakers and party officials.

Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said Thursday in a statement the result shows “no one is above the law” and that Trump “has always mistakenly believed he would never face consequences for breaking the law for his own personal gain.” But Biden also acknowledged the legal system alone won’t keep Trump from winning back the White House in November.

“There’s only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: At the ballot box,” Biden said in a fundraising pitch.

Trump’s felony conviction provides Biden an opportunity to shake up the race by refocusing voters’ attention on Trump’s conduct.

“It would be malpractice not to fully lean into the verdict,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and veteran of Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I’d expect President Biden to give a major address and have Democratic officials fan the country and do everything possible to make the race a referendum on Trump.”

Voter Shifts

Trump sought to capitalize on the verdict to motivate hardcore supporters, who largely buy into his claims that the prosecution was a politically motivated effort to keep him out of power. The former president, like Biden, sent out a fundraising appeal minutes after the jury reached its decision with the subject line, “I was just convicted in a rigged trial!”

“The real verdict is going to be November 5th by the people, and they know what happened here,” Trump said in brief comments to reporters outside the courtroom.

Trump used a similar strategy last year, harnessing Republican anger about his indictments to drive his primary opponents out of the race. It’s unclear that will work in a general election, though.

James Carville, a senior strategist on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, said the most important element of the guilty verdict is that it was delivered by an impartial jury — and thus could resonate with marginal and undecided voters, who generally ignore partisan messengers.

“Trump can’t win with just his people,” Carville said. “And it will definitely have a blocking effect on everyone else.”

Surveys conducted prior to the verdict indicate that Trump will indeed pay a price for the jury’s conclusion that he knowingly falsified business records to hide an extramarital affair with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels from voters during the 2016 presidential campaign.

A May 23 Marquette Law School poll of registered voters found that a “guilty” verdict would produce a 4-point Biden lead in a national head-to-head match-up with Trump, while a “not guilty” verdict would have resulted in a 6-point Trump lead.

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“In a race that’s been so close to tied all year, those would be nontrivial moves — if they actually materialize after the verdict,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll.

Franklin, however, is uncertain they will, advising people to “be appropriately skeptical.” While there’s no historical precedent for Trump’s felony conviction, Marquette measured public sentiment throughout his last impeachment trial.

“Not a damn thing changed,” said Franklin. “So we should be very cautious about assuming even mid-single digit effects” from the guilty verdict in the New York criminal trial.

Whether the race shifts could depend more on Biden than on Trump. At least some strategists in both parties expect Trump’s newfound status as a felon to have a lasting impact — provided Biden and his campaign do enough to highlight the conviction to people mostly tuned out of national affairs.

There are practical questions as well for Trump’s campaign, which has long desired to ramp up travel to battleground states free from the constraints of the court schedule. His sentencing is scheduled for July 11, four days before the start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Already, evidence of internal strife surfaced in the aftermath of the verdict, with Trump surrogates clashing on social media with former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan - now the GOP candidate for the state’s US Senate race - after he urged Americans to “respect the verdict and the legal process.”

“You just ended your campaign,” responded Trump aide Chris LaCivita.

‘People Have Spoken’

One Trump adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the candidate, said that before the verdict, the campaign was feeling confident about a repeat of 2016. But, the adviser said, the title ‘convicted felon’ would rattle the low-propensity, low-information voters who are the source of Trump’s lead right now.

Despite the Trump campaign’s public claims it was unconcerned about the trial, Trump had privately expressed to allies and advisers that he did not want to become a convicted felon.

Strategists said that’s a sound instinct for any candidate, but particularly for Trump.

“I don’t care if it’s Manhattan, Kansas, or a Manhattan bar room — the jury’s opinion carries a lot of weight because it’s not tainted by politics,” said Carville. “These people sat in a courtroom for four weeks, listened to every word of every witness, and returned a guilty verdict. Now Biden can point to them and say, ‘The people have spoken — and Donald Trump is now a convicted felon.’”

--With assistance from Stephanie Lai, Hadriana Lowenkron and Josh Wingrove.

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