ELECTIONS

Investigations may help Donald Trump politically — and that may hurt the Republican Party

What works for primary voters doesn’t work in the general election, analysts say. The more Trump is attacked, the more likely he is to win the GOP nomination in 2024 and then lose as he did in 2020.

  • Despite revelations of a number of investigations, Donald Trump’s political standing remains strong - with his base.
  • The Republican Party as a whole, however, appears to be struggling under the weight of Trump’s legal troubles.
  • Several Trump-backed candidates in important races are now underdogs, particularly in pivotal U.S. Senate races.
  • The August search of Mar-a-Lago has triggered a backlash against the FBI and the Biden administration.

WASHINGTON — New revelations about Donald Trump investigations are helping him with his base of votes — and that could spell bad news for the Republican Party as a whole.

More than 40 days after the Justice Department searched his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump remains the top Republican among GOP voters and is still competitive with President Joe Biden in a number of hypothetical 2024 election polls.

The Republican Party, having nominated dozens of Trump-backed candidates for public office, is struggling to regain control of governors' mansions and the U.S. Congress, even though historical trends suggest this should be a Republican year.

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"Donald Trump is never as strong as when he’s being attacked," pollster Frank Luntz said. "He plays the victim better than any elected official I’ve ever seen and his voters love it."

He added: "But everyone else is sick of it and it turns them off."

Trump, who held a political rally Saturday in Youngstown, Ohio, has said the investigations are "hoaxes" that will only fire up his supporters.

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"What they did is terrible," Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt Thursday. "And I don’t think the people are going to stand for it.

Midterms elections are supposed to be about the party in power, in this case Biden and the Democrats. But Trump's unprecedented involvement in this year's elections – combined with investigations into his conduct regarding classified documents as well as the Jan. 6. 2021 insurrection – have enabled Democrats to put more of a focus on the former president.

The Trump Issue

Trump and his supporters have always run against a political establishment they like to call "the swamp." So far, the ex-president has persuaded supporters that the investigations are a bid by his political enemies to get back at him and them.

Not everyone is convinced.

In a Fox News poll this week, nearly two-thirds of voters believe it was inappropriate for Trump to have removed classified documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago – a margin of 65% to 26%.

Trump actually led Biden by 45% to 42% in a 2024 matchup, with 13% unsure, according to a new poll conducted by Harvard's Center for American Political Studies (CAPS) and Harris Insights and Analytics – though that same poll also said most voters don't want either Trump or Biden to run again in two years.

That poll also said that 59% of Republicans would vote for Trump again in 2024 primaries, well ahead of second-place finisher Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 17%.

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Trump has also raised political money by protesting the search of his home, as well as the multiple Jan. 6 investigations being conducted by grand juries and a special congressional committee.

The political impact of all this will last for years — especially if Trump is indicted.

A grand jury in Atlanta is investigating his pressuring of Georgia officials to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden in that state. Grand juries out of Washington are looking into his handling of classified information and his efforts to overturn the election nationally, leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

All those investigations:Trump in midst of gathering storm of investigations. Mar-a-Lago document inquiry is one of many.

Trump has suggested his supporters might riot if he is indicted, though he doesn't believe it will come to that.

"I can't imagine being indicted," he told Hewitt. "I've done nothing wrong."

Trump and the 2022 midterms

The intense publicity surrounding all these investigations isn't hurting Trump with Republican voters, most political experts told USA TODAY, but GOP candidates running this November appear to be damaged across the board.

For one thing: it is making it harder for candidates to make the elections about Biden.

“What it does do is it takes away from our efforts to talk about all of Biden's failed policies,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant. “So it steps on our own messaging efforts.”

Nicholas said that some Senate Republican candidates — including Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona, and J.D. Vance in Ohio — face an uphill fight to victory even without news about the Trump investigations.

Senate candidate JD Vance greets former President Donald Trump at a rally on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio.

They are inexperienced candidates who won primaries largely with Trump's endorsement, he said, but they are having trouble attracting independent voters if general election polls are to be believed. In some cases, the Trump-ites defeated more moderate establishment candidates who would have been better in November because of their ability to woo swing voters.

"I think what has hurt Senate GOP candidates more is that he endorsed and helped get over the line some Senate nominees that will be tougher to get elected in the general election," Nicholas said.

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The probes are not helping these and other Republican Senate candidates, analysts said. They could also be undercutting GOP efforts to regain control of the U.S. House. Nicholas said all the adverse news stories "can tamp down our enthusiasm and turnout all across the country."

A win rate of nearly 96%

Even before the Aug. 8 FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s hold over the GOP had been solidified during the midterm primary season.

An analysis from the Brookings Institute this month, found Trump-endorsed candidates usually won their primary races.

There were notable exceptions in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp and others prevailed despite Trump's opposition. Still, candidates that Trump explicitly endorsed had a 96.53% success rate.    

Karen Hult, a political science professor and presidential expert at Virginia Tech, said Trump success in the primaries doesn't mean success in the general election. And the investigations are added burdens for GOP candidates.

"Where it could make a difference, but only at the very narrow margins, is in the general election,” Hult said. “And that probably has to do with turnout of GOP voters. Because we don't know what will happen between now and then.”

Headwinds in November:Primary fallout: Democrats have momentum; Donald Trump Republicans face obstacles

The current elections have also been rocked by another issue somewhat related to Trump: abortion.

Democrats revved up their base after a majority on the Supreme Court — including three Trump-appointed justices — voted to strike down Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that had made abortion a constitutional right.

Fifty-six percent of Democrats and 57% of Republicans — a virtual tie — said they were “extremely” or “very” motivated to vote, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released this month.

Hult agreed that the attention on Trump could put off Independents or dilute Republican voting power.

"It may well make people pause a little bit more before voting a straight Republican ticket," Hult said. "It may (induce) others to shut out elections and may (induce) others to either do write-ins or do kind of what we used to call split ballots."

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Aug. 5, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.

Trump and 2024  

Trump's prospects as a future candidate himself are less clear.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 67% of Independents do not want Trump to run again for president, while 28% wanted him to run. Overall, 61% of voters don't want him to run, according to the poll. 

In the aftermath of the FBI search, the survey also found that 44% think Trump did something illegal, 17% think he did something unethical but not illegal and 29%, including 63% of Republicans, think he did nothing wrong. 

As of Sept. 14, Trump had a 53.6% unfavorable composite rating, according to FiveThirtyEight.  

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Dan Lee, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he doesn’t think the investigations will diminish GOP support for Trump if he runs for president again.

“I think in general, Republicans are pretty supportive of Trump in spite of all of these revelations,” Lee said. “A lot of them will say that ‘yes he probably did something wrong,’ but it hasn't reached a point yet where they're not going to support him to run to be the Republican nominee."

What works for primary voters, however, doesn’t work in the general election. The more he is attacked, the more likely he is to win the Republican nomination in 2024 and then lose to the Democrats as he did in 2020.

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Trump's continued hold over the GOP comes at the party's own expense, analysts said. 

"If you look at the success Trump's had in Republican primaries, he still has a big hold on Republican primary voters," Democratic consultant and pollster Brad Bannon said. "And I'm sure it's encouraging him to (run in 2024). But again, while it's helping Trump it's killing the GOP."