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Raising money and poll numbers, Donald Trump stays 'Teflon Don' amid indictments

Then-President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the certification of Joe Biden as the next president on Jan. 6, 2021.
Evan Vucci
/
AP
Then-President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the certification of Joe Biden as the next president on Jan. 6, 2021.

Even early in his 2016 presidential run, Donald Trump understood the pull he had with Republican voters.

It was evident in many of the comments he made but perhaps most famously when he talked about how much support he enjoyed with the base.

"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible," Trump said at a campaign stop in Iowa in January 2016.

He survived multiple scandals during that campaign and later as president, including two impeachments. He remains the only president to ever have been impeached twice.

And now, Trump remains the undisputed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, despite facing three indictments on a variety of criminal charges, most recently on Tuesday. While it's still unknown what impact the latest federal indictment — on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack — will have on the electorate, so far he has weathered every storm.

It has only added to the "Teflon Don" persona that he has developed over the years — a persona that regular political rules do not apply to Trump. It's a persona that is also backed by the support he understood early in his 2016 run for the White House.

Polls show that each indictment Trump has faced has correlated with a boost in support.

Let's look at the numbers.

  • In March, several weeks before the first indictment, Trump had just 43% of the vote in Republican polling, according to a RealClearPolitics average.
  • But then Trump was indicted by a grand jury in New York in connection to a hush money payment to a porn actress. By the next day, his numbers had jumped to 50%.
  • Two months later, he was indicted again, this time at the federal level, for alleged mishandling of classified documents. His polling average jumped again, this time to 55%.
  • While the numbers fluctuated throughout the following weeks, he experienced a boost again when he announced another federal indictment may be looming. It's not yet clear how these most recent charges will impact his polling numbers, but if history is any guide, he may be able to shake it off.

    It's not just public opinion that seems to rise with Trump's legal challenges. His fundraising numbers do too.

    Each indictment has triggered a new wave of fundraising calls. The Trump campaign has mastered the art of soliciting donations, ostensibly for the former president's "legal fund."

    Master of messaging

    Part of the reason Trump has been so successful is that he has embraced the investigations and turned them into part of his messaging strategy to get him back into the White House.

    "The bizarre thing about this indictment or any of these indictments is it reinforces one of Trump's core messages that the system is rigged against you and me and him," said longtime Republican strategist Doug Heye. "[Each indictment] becomes more proof not of Trump's wrongdoing but of the system being rigged."

    Heye explained that Trump has also had a lot of help from his political rivals.

    Typically in American political history, scandals like those that Trump has faced both in and out of office would be wholly disqualifying. President Richard Nixon resigned just because he learned he would be impeached, whereas Trump struck a more combative tone.

    No president — former or current — has ever faced the kinds of criminal charges and legal proceedings Trump is facing.

    But if the expectation would be that the other Republican presidential candidates would capitalize on Trump's woes, the reality is quite the opposite.

    Instead of attacking him, presidential hopefuls have largely rushed to his defense after each indictment. On the campaign trail, you hear them echo Trump's claims that this is politically motivated, which just lends more credibility to his message.

    Trump may not be totally untouchable

    Despite the Teflon Don persona, some things do stick to the former president.

    While the indictments might have boosted Trump's chances of winning the Republican nomination, they could hurt him with independents and Republican swing voters.

    The general election is more than a year off, and he has not yet won the Republican nomination. But his legal troubles have appeared to hurt him with the voters he needs to attract to have a chance if he is the nominee in 2024.

    History is a bit of a guide here. In the 2022 midterms, candidates endorsed by Trump or who ran on a very Trumpian-style political identity underperformed compared with Republicans as a whole. And moderate Republicans in places like New York picked up just enough seats to clinch control of the House of Representatives.

    A recent NPR poll found that a majority of Americans, including 52% of independents, believe he has done something illegal. That's why some Republican leaders and Republican donors are looking past looming indictments and criminal proceedings and worrying instead about the political future of the Republican Party in the general election.

    But in true Trump style, the former president is still shaking it all off. On his social media site, Truth Social, he signaled that each indictment gets him closer to the White House.

    "I NEED ONE MORE INDICTMENT TO ENSURE MY ELECTION!" he posted to nearly 6 million followers.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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    Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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