New Study Challenges Popular Belief: Trump’s Indictments Actually Decrease Support Among Republicans

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
September 13, 2023

Flag with Donald Trump 2024 presidential election campaign logo waving in front blurred US congress.

Following all four of former President Donald Trump’s criminal indictments, political pundits asserted that his popularity increased among Republican primary voters.

To explain this phenomenon, they argued that his devoted base of supporters might reject as politically motivated the charges levied by federal and state grand juries in four different jurisdictions for four different alleged crimes. Or that they are simply rallying around Trump because they don’t care whether, for example, he illegally possessed and shared highly classified government secrets or conspired to overturn the election he lost to President Joe Biden.

But is this common narrative true?

Institution for Social and Policy Studies faculty fellow Alexander Coppock and his colleagues disagree. They conducted a study finding that the most common format in which survey questions seek to determine the impact of Trump’s indictments on the level of support for his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination largely misrepresents the effect.

In a working paper not yet peer-reviewed and released by the authors, the researchers found that the federal indictment accusing Trump of intentionally mishandling secret documents slightly hurt his standing among Republicans and increased their belief that the allegations were true.

“There is a false interpretation out there that the indictments increase support for Trump,” Coppock said. “That’s a misunderstanding of what’s going on. It decreases support for Trump that he was indicted. Simultaneously, it is true that it upset Republicans, and he’s able to fundraise off it. But relative to being indicted, I think Trump would be more likely to win the primary if he hadn’t been indicted.”

The reason pollsters and pundits believe the indictments are helping Trump has to do with the phrasing of most survey questions on this topic, the researchers found. Known as a “change format” question, survey respondents are usually asked directly whether the news of an indictment makes them more or less likely to support Trump. The problem with such a question, Coppock said, is that people who like and support Trump want to use the most positive answer available to indicate their support, so they say they are more likely to support him even if there really is no change in their level of support.

“People in general are not very good at knowing the causal effect of events in the world on their attitudes,” Coppock said. “This is what social scientists spend all their time trying to determine. So, when someone who already supports Trump as much as someone can support him is asked if an indictment makes them support Trump more, they say yes. Even if there is no change. In effect, they are answering a different question than the one you are asking.”

To address this problem, Coppock; Matthew Graham, former ISPS graduate fellow and assistant professor of political science at Temple University, Soubhik Barari, research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago; and Zoe Padgett, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey, introduced a pair of questions in what is known as the counterfactual format and compared the results to the more common change format question.

For the counterfactual format, they first asked Republican-identifying survey respondents about their support for Trump and then what their support would be if they had never heard about his federal indictment for hoarding and obstructing the retrieval of government secrets. In this way, people get to express their support without trying to answer a different question than the one at hand.

Among Republican respondents answering the change format question, 43% said the indictment made them support Trump more in the primary, with 16% saying it made them less likely to vote for him. Republicans given the opportunity to register their support through the counterfactual format questions, on average, said they were 64.1% likely to vote for him in the primary. But when asked how they would have responded if they did not know about the indictment, the average support was 65.7%. This implies that the indictment caused support among Republicans to go down 1.6 percentage points.

“On average, it’s a miniscule difference,” Coppock said. “But it suggests the common understanding of the effects of these indictments is wrong. Everybody moves a tiny amount in the direction of disliking Donald Trump when they get this news.”

And though polls indicate Trump remains in a comfortable lead for the nomination despite his legal peril, Coppock said it is important to correct the impression that indictments are beneficial to his chances.

“These indictments upset his supporters, make them feel under siege, and might even make their behavior more extreme,” Coppock said. “But it doesn’t mean they are as a group so unprincipled that they support him even more.”

Coppock said that such a misunderstanding is bad for our public discourse and that more researchers should adopt the counterfactual format.

“In some ways, this is a boring result — that bad news is bad for a candidate,” he said. “But it’s better to be boring than to rely on questions that give misleading results.”

Area of study 
Political Behavior