A lot of people believe I make political predictions, but that’s not really true. Instead, I try to marshal history, data, polling, reporting and more to help make sense of the political landscape. It usually amounts to one of those old, yellowish, distorted maps from the age of exploration. It offers only a rough guide of what lies ahead.
This week, we’re approaching uncharted waters. The front-runner for a major party nomination for president may soon be indicted. This is the blurry corner of the map where we can’t do much more than draw fantastical sea creatures. We know this part of the world is probably ocean, but we don’t know much else. We’re sure it’s dangerous.
We’ve learned a thing or two from previous expeditions by Donald J. Trump into rough, faraway waters. Already, he has survived multiple federal investigations, two impeachment trials and countless predictions of his political demise. Every drunken sailor at the pub knows he can’t be counted out. But if Mr. Trump has defied the odds before, he hasn’t always come back unscathed. It’s not wise to tempt fate too many times.
Here’s the outline of the map as we edge toward a possible indictment:
The F.B.I. search of Mr. Trump’s property for classified records in August is probably the best precedent. While not an indictment, it represented a judgment by a court that there was probable cause to believe he committed a crime. The allegation was more serious than the Stormy Daniels case, as it carried potential implications for national security. But the search did not have a discernible effect on Mr. Trump’s standing among Republicans. Conservatives circled the wagons and argued that the search of a former president was an unjust act of partisan politics. There was no effect on his standing in the polls. In our Times/Siena polling last summer and fall, the Republican primary race was essentially unchanged after the F.B.I. search.
An indictment is still uncharted territory, so it’s worth being cautious about any potential fallout. A new legal line would be crossed, even if this story is already playing out much like the F.B.I. search.
But seriously, this indictment would seem particularly unlikely to hurt Mr. Trump’s base of support. The public already knows about Ms. Daniels. His supporters decided, long ago, that they did not especially care about the case’s underlying facts. An illegal cover-up of a private affair is more like the perjury accusation against Bill Clinton than Richard Nixon’s tapes.
The upside for Mr. Trump seems fairly limited. Yes, there really could be short-term gains for Mr. Trump if Republicans rally to his defense. Still, it’s a little much to argue that many Republicans who don’t support him for the nomination today would be far likelier to back him after an indictment. It could certainly energize his base, but an indictment would reinforce some of the reasons other Republicans are reluctant to back him in the first place. It’s not as if Mr. Trump became a juggernaut after the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago.
There is no reason to assume Mr. Trump is invulnerable. He is weaker than ever, including at the time of the F.B.I. raid. His defeat in the 2020 presidential election, the fallout from Jan. 6, and the 2022 midterms have plainly taken a toll on his standing. After the midterm elections, his support in primary polling slipped into the 30s. Despite modest gains over the last two months, he’s still in the mid-40s. These numbers make him a front-runner in the primary, but no juggernaut. His position is like Hillary Clinton’s in 2008 — it seemed possible she could lose, and she ultimately did. Mr. Trump is not invincible; his base leaves him short of victory.
Mr. Trump’s weakness increases the downside risks for his candidacy, even if it plays out exactly the way the F.B.I. raid did.
It’s one thing to rally your base, even at the risk of cementing opposition, when you’re at 55 percent in the polls. That’s enough to win the primary. It’s very different if you’re at 35 percent. That may not be enough to win, and solidifying the case against you is a risky gamble. It could close off your path to victory.
Today, Mr. Trump sits in the low-to-mid forties, right between 35 percent and 55 percent. As recently as two months ago, he was in the mid-30s — he currently enjoys the support of a group of voters who seem quite willing to go in a different direction under slightly different circumstances. There could be much more downside than upside for Mr. Trump. A crucial sliver of Republicans might decide they’re ready to move on.
The longer term is murky. It’s easy enough to game out the next few weeks, but an indictment would bring the specter of a trial and even the possibility of conviction and imprisonment. It brings the possibility that Mr. Trump might behave in unpredictable ways with uncertain and risky political consequences, like rallying protesters and the potential for violence. And Mr. Trump faces other legal risks, including ones that could prove more politically threatening. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, expected to be his main primary opponent, might successfully attack him in ways he could not today.
These possibilities lie even farther off the edge of our map. If he’s convicted, that might amount to falling off the map altogether.