Trump Conviction Shows There’s No 2024 Game Changer Coming

Trump at his first post-conviction rally. Same old Teflon Don.
Photo: Rick Scuteri/AP

For months now, many political observers have stared at polls that show Donald Trump with a modest lead over Joe Biden and have placed a mental thumb on the scales for the incumbent due to “Trump’s legal problems.” This was particularly common (and justifiable) back when it looked as though Trump could be on trial for multiple criminal charges in different cases before Election Day. And even when it turned out the (arguably) weakest case against him was the only one that would reach fruition before November, the available evidence and plain logic suggested that being officially branded as a “convicted criminal” could knock Trump’s candidacy off-balance in a serious way.

Anyone holding their breath to see if a guilty verdict in the Trump hush-money trial would impact the election can now exhale. While it’s possible to look at the data and see a glass that is half-empty or half-full, the overall indication is that Trump’s conviction has not changed the race. And on balance, that’s good for the 45th president.

Yes, the “story” that emerged from a Manhattan courtroom on May 30 has concluding chapters yet to come, particularly on July 11 when Judge Juan Merchan has scheduled a sentencing hearing for Trump. And we can anticipate hundreds of millions of dollars in paid messages from the Biden campaign reminding voters the president’s opponent is a felon. But in a way, that’s a partial victory for Trump since it reinforces his campaign’s argument that his indictment, trial, and conviction in the hush-money case were a piece of partisan jobbery and not a legitimate criminal proceeding at all. Ideally, the Biden campaign would have liked the conviction to speak for itself without any goosing from a White House that stands accused (without a bit of documentation) of orchestrating the entire prosecution.

In other words, facts aside, Trump’s conviction and his overall status as a man perpetually on the wrong side of the law are being perceived through partisan lenses, which in turn will tend to encourage unaffiliated voters to discount them. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it’s reality.

What this means more broadly is that Trump may once again defy expectations based on the available precedents. This has happened an awful lot in the man’s relatively short but eventful career in elected politics, beginning with the moment when many of us were certain that career was about to abruptly end — when he blithely disrespected the very sacred cow of America’s favorite POW war hero:

You can argue all day about why Trump seems to be “Teflon Don” or even conclude that it’s not about him but about his feckless opponents in both parties or about an atmosphere of partisan polarization (to which he has definitely and self-servingly contributed) that nothing can penetrate. But whatever it is, we’re in a presidential contest that appears to be all but impervious to the kinds of things that used to be called game changers.It’s time to accept at least as a rebuttable presumption that the game isn’t changing. And that has implications for future events like the presidential debates, the two major-party conventions, and the cut-and-thrust of the campaign competition as the November election grows nigh.

That doesn’t mean Trump’s going to win, to be clear. “Convicted criminal” or not, he remains relatively very unpopular: He’s incapable of moderating his savage and vengeful message, and this year’s turnout dynamics could make Biden’s base of support more reliable. And Trump’s polling lead, even though it has induced regular panic in some Democratic ranks, has never been more than a few ticks away from vanishing altogether. But no one should expect Trump to self-destruct or persuadable voters to wake up some morning and realize what a terrible man he is.

If, late on Election Night, Trump appears on TVs and computer screens as the president-elect of the United States, as he did to the horror of Blue America in 2016 — or worse yet, if he loses and claims victory anyway as he did in 2020 — no one should be that surprised. We’ve been here before.

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