New polling suggests that the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago might be giving Trump a boost in popularity on the right. This news might be alarming for some who fear a more riled-up Trump electoral base. But it doesn’t mean the FBI was wrong to enforce the law.
As Axios notes in a roundup of recent polls, it appears Trump is enjoying an approval bump in the aftermath of the FBI executing its search warrant on Aug. 8. Earlier this summer, a series of polls showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tied or competitive with Trump among Republicans in the critical primary state of New Hampshire. But the latest Saint Anselm College survey conducted there after the Mar-a-Lago search shows Trump back on top, with a massive 20-point lead. And a new NBC poll shows that while 34% of Republican voters said they supported Trump more than the GOP in May, 41% support him more post-Mar-a-Lago. These numbers, coupled with reports of GOP donors rallying behind the former president, have apparently scared some never-Trump Republicans into thinking the FBI search “put wind in Trump’s sails,” write Axios’ Jonathan Swan and Josh Kraushaar.
These polling trends were also broadly predictable.
If data like this continues to emerge, expect centrist skeptics of the FBI search to claim vindication: See, we warned you this would backfire politically. But such contrarian admonishments remain unpersuasive, for a number of reasons.
First of all, that same NBC poll cited in the Axios piece shows a clear majority — 57% of U.S. voters —believe investigations into Trump’s behavior should continue. That majority includes 92% of Democratic voters, 61% of independents and 21% of Republican voters. So while it’s possible that some Republicans are more inclined to mobilize behind Trump right now, based on the perception that he’s being persecuted, it’s premature to suggest that the FBI’s behavior is causing a cross-partisan backlash. Are moderate Republicans ready to shed their misgivings about Trump? There is no need to catastrophize just yet. We also need will more polling data to confirm this is actually a substantive and enduring trend.
These polling trends were also broadly predictable. After all, the contemporary right seems increasingly scandalized by even the most modest attempts to reform society or create more accountability for the powerful, whether through antiracism in schools or moderate police reform. So of course something like an FBI search of Trump’s home — an unprecedented bid for accountability for apparent presidential misconduct — was going to elicit extreme responses. If your metric for action is whether it will elicit backlash from the right, then you won’t be able to do much of anything at all.
In my earlier appraisal of the anti-FBI search doomsayers, I acknowledged the possibility that an an investigation into Trump could lead to more aggressive right-wing mobilization without necessarily resulting in any outcome of serous legal consequence for Trump. (Remember, Trump is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act and improper handling of federal records, but has not been, and may not ever be, charged.)
But the real political dilemma involves weighing the risk of an angrier Trump base against the risk of the government being too scared to pursue accountability against a citizen who is suspected of having violated the law. By my lights, the latter is a bigger risk. The precedent of letting things slide because someone once inhabited the Oval Office or because they have a cult-like political base is extremely troubling. If Trump were to return to the White House, he would likely be even bolder in his disregard for the law. Believing oneself immune from prosecution doesn’t typically lead to more honest behavior.
Of course, Trump might eventually be slapped with charges and even convicted. That wouldn’t necessarily prevent him from running from president again, but it would encumber him with more potential vulnerabilities in a GOP presidential primary.
While the focus among the anxious right now is on how Trump can milk persecution to his advantage, there is also the possibility that Republican donors and voters would subsequently be more likely to consider DeSantis — a Trump-like candidate without a criminal record — to be more electable, and thus more desirable. Democrats should not bank on this outcome, given the zeal of Trump’s base. But it also cannot be ruled out a possible primary dynamic, especially since recent polling also indicates that a significant number of Republicans, especially young and educated ones, are growing tired of the nonstop, self-aggrandizing roller coaster that is the Donald Trump show.