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How do voters feel about the 37 federal charges filed against Donald Trump?


Former President Donald Trump is expected to appear in federal court tomorrow in Miami. He's accused of taking classified documents that included nuclear and defense secrets, then refusing to give them back. And at times, he apparently showed them to people. Trump spent the weekend rejecting the federal charges against him at presidential campaign events and making inflammatory and, at times, dubious claims to his supporters, because he'll be tried in court, but the presidential hopeful will first be judged by voters in the Republican primary and then, later, the presidential election.

For some insight into how this is all playing with Republican voters, we turn to Republican pollster and strategist Sarah Longwell. Good morning and welcome back to the program.

SARAH LONGWELL: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So we saw Trump really making himself out to be a victim this weekend - a victim of the government. Are Republican voters buying Trump's argument that these charges are political?

LONGWELL: They do. And there's this phenomenon that happens every time Trump is impeached or indicted, and I call it the rally-round-Trump effect, where voters express - they sort of share his grievance. And they view - you know, they use words like weaponized, railroaded, two-tiered justice system. And it's hard to blame voters for believing this because this is the message they get not just from Donald Trump but from a lot of Republican elected officials, from right-wing media, even from Trump's 2024 challengers. And so when the party - you know, everybody kind of rushes to Trump's defense and cries foul, you know, you can't be surprised when that's the message that the voters take in.

FADEL: Now, legal experts say this indictment is quite damning. You had former Attorney General Bill Barr talking about it over the weekend. And yet, as you point out, a majority of Republicans, including some of Trump's primary opponents, are defending him. Why?

LONGWELL: Well, I think that there's this symbiotic relationship where they believe that - the voters demand it from them. You know, they believe that to attack Trump would cause them to lose the support of voters. And the thing is, there's some truth to that. You know, we have been asking now for several months how voters would respond to Trump being indicted this second time. And out of the 50 voters that we talked to, only two said that another indictment would make them support Trump less. But 19 of them said that it would make them support Trump more.

And so the candidates know that these voters are going to respond this way. And so I think that they make this tactical decision to just stay on Trump's side and then hope that they can, you know, make their case later. But it really is a mistake because it allows Trump to kind of suck up all this oxygen. And these other challengers - they kind of become bit players in Trump's central drama, and it makes it impossible for them to make an affirmative case for themselves or to use this as an opening to explain why Trump is unfit.

FADEL: So will this indictment actually buoy his presidential campaign, make him a stronger candidate?

LONGWELL: You know, I think - in the short term. There's - you know, one of the things I - about these rally-round-Trump effects is that they tend to be sort of short-term bumps. Now, the question is is how many more indictments are going to come, and is it going to be a case where, because of all of Trump's legal troubles, he's the only person who ever gets talked about? And like I said, these other candidates can't find a way to break through, make an affirmative case for themselves, explain to the country why Trump is unfit. Then Trump's the only game in town, and that does ultimately make him sort of the dominant player in the Republican primary.

FADEL: Yeah. As you point out, he's the dominant player in the Republican primary. If he does win the nomination, what does this case mean, and other cases mean, for his chances in the general election?

LONGWELL: Well, this is where everything's different because the gap between what base voters want and what swing voters will tolerate has gotten very wide. Donald Trump is not popular with swing voters, and I don't anticipate that these indictments or his legal troubles are going to make him more popular with swing voters.

FADEL: Sarah Longwell is a GOP strategist and founder of the Republican Accountability Project. Thanks so much for your time and your insights.

LONGWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.