May 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden not banking on a Trump conviction to win

Illustration of a gavel intersecting the zero in "2024", in the style of Donald Trump's campaign branding.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A guilty verdict for Donald Trump in his New York hush-money trial would be unprecedented in presidential history — but even President Biden's team isn't sure it would matter come November.

Driving the news: Biden's campaign appears increasingly frustrated by polls that show Trump with a slight lead — and by the media's obsession with Trump's felony trial in New York.

  • Despite everything — weeks of embarrassing trial headlines for Trump, Biden's big swing state push and his onslaught of ads — the race appears to be stuck, with Trump holding a slight lead in most polls.
  • Many Democrats are resigned to the notion that most Americans' opinions of Trump-as-a-person aren't going to change.
  • So regardless of whether Trump becomes a convicted felon, Biden's team sees its challenge as defining Trump-as-a-potential-president — and selling voters on the threats it says he poses.

What they're saying: "This was always going to be a close election, and a conviction is not likely to make a huge dent in how most people view Trump," said Jim Messina, who ran then-President Obama's campaign in 2012.

  • "There are bigger issues that matter more to voters and directly impact their lives than whether Trump is a convicted criminal," he said.

Even so, the campaign's press conference outside Trump's trial on Tuesday — in which actor Robert De Niro and two Capitol police officers from Jan. 6 called Trump a threat to democracy — came off as a bit desperate to some Democrats.

  • It also gifted Trump's team a chance to link Biden to Trump being on trial, a frequent claim by the ex-president.
  • "The Biden campaign is in freak-out mode and will try anything to cling to power," Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung told Axios.

Zoom in: Biden's team dismisses bad polls, but his campaign is acting like it believes some of the cross-tabs — especially those showing his support slipping with Black and Hispanic voters, crucial Democratic voting blocs.

  • The campaign is focused on winning them back, with the president launching a ""Black Voters for Biden-Harris" drive in Philadelphia yesterday.

There is some polling that suggests Trump's trial could make some difference with a voting group Biden needs: independents.

  • Some 23% of independents say a guilty verdict would make them less likely to vote for Trump, compared to 11% who say it would make them more likely to back him, according to a Quinnipiac survey last week.
  • But a clear majority — 63% — say it wouldn't make a difference.

Asked before the trial whether Trump did something illegal, some 46% of voters agreed. After closing statements, it was still 46%, CNN's Harry Enten pointed out.

  • "Very few voters will change their opinion of Trump based on a guilty verdict," said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist group Third Way.
  • "But it's a game of inches, so any otherwise Trump voters in swing states who switch, or don't vote, matters."

What we're watching: Inside the campaign, annoyance with the media's coverage of Trump's trial is bubbling up.

  • "The President just spoke to approx 1,000 mostly black voters in Philly about the massive stakes in this election," T.J. Ducklo, a senior adviser for communications for the Biden-Harris campaign, posted on X Wednesday.
  • "@MSNBC @CNN & others did not show it. Instead, more coverage about a trial that impacts one person: Trump."
  • "Then they'll ask, why isn't your message getting out?"

First Lady Jill Biden gave public voice to a theory about polls that has been percolating internally within the campaign for weeks: Joe Biden just needs more time.

  • "Those polls are going to turn, I'm confident of it," she said on "The View."
  • "As time goes on and as people start to focus a little more at what's at stake and start to become educated on the issues and the differences between the two men, I believe that Americans are going to choose good over evil."

Zoom out: Both candidates and their campaigns routinely trade insults and question each other's mental competence and commitment to democracy.

  • Biden has called Trump a "loser," a "six-year-old" and a "dictator."
  • It's unclear whether adding "convicted felon" to the list of Trump descriptors will sway the 6% of Americans likely to decide the election in six swing states.

That doesn't mean the Biden campaign would refrain from calling Trump a "convicted felon" if the jury finds him guilty. But the president's team isn't convinced it'd be a silver bullet.

  • "Trump's personal and legal issues will not stop him from being the GOP nominee," one Biden adviser said.
  • "The only way to stop him is by voting for Joe Biden."
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