Former President Donald Trump is following up his big victory in Iowa by campaigning in some traditional and unusual venues: the state of New Hampshire and a courthouse in New York City.
Trump’s decision to shuttle between a defamation trial brought by columnist E. Jean Carroll and the battleground state underscores a paradox of an already odd election. The former president is trying to use his many legal troubles to help him politically, at least with conservative Republican voters.
“Nobody’s ever had to do this before,” Trump told supporters late Tuesday in Atkinson, New Hampshire, where he echoed his long-running unfounded argument that the legal cases against him are political efforts to derail his campaign.
If anything, however, they have fueled his White House bid among Republicans.
Polling shows the civil lawsuits and four criminal cases Trump faces − including allegations that could have destroyed any other candidate − are helping the former president with his base.
But while conservatives rallied around Trump after his criminal indictments, moderate Republicans and independent voters in a general election might be a different story. Polls say those voters could abandon the former president, especially if Trump is convicted in any of the cases.
Ahead of the pivotal New Hampshire primary, here’s what to know about how Trump is leaning into the idea of campaigning from the courthouse.
Backlash against indictments
As Trump rolled up a victory in Iowa, surveys of caucusgoers found 64% of Hawkeye State Republicans believe Trump would still be fit to be president even if he was convicted of a crime.
Caucusgoers supporting Trump told USA TODAY his criminal charges aren’t a problem in the primaries, and they won’t be much of a hurdle in the general election.
“I think he’s going to get over it,” said Mandy Ryan, 40, a homemaker from Grimes, Iowa, who attended Trump’s victory rally in Des Moines. “I think the people who are persecuting him are going to regret it.”
In poll after poll before the Iowa contest, Republicans consistently dismissed legal accusations against Trump. But the former president can’t rely solely on his conservative base to return to the White House. He also has to win over more moderate and independent voters if he wants a second term.
That could be a challenge. A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll found 82% of Republican primary voters say the legal actions against Trump should be dropped. But among independents in a general election, that number is 42%.
A New York Times/Siena College survey in November found a conviction could cost Trump about 6% of the vote in states that have the power to decide a presidential race: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Rivals can’t take advantage
Some political observers say Trump’s indictments haven’t been a stumbling block on the campaign trail because his Republican opponents can’t take advantage of his sweeping charges.
The most prominent GOP candidate to attack Trump over his legal struggles, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, got little traction and withdrew from the race last week.
Challengers such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have generally agreed with Trump and called the indictments unfair while avoiding discussion of the details of the charges. The Republican rivals are trying to take a more subtle approach, urging voters to move past the “drama” and “chaos” of Trump’s political movement.
“We don’t want to go and hear about any more investigations,” Haley said Tuesday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “We’re done with that. Everybody wants to see new, fresh leadership.”
DeSantis has challenged Trump’s odds in the general election because of his indictments and trials, particularly the ones flowing from the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“That ends up focusing the election on things that are going to be advantageous for Democrats,” DeSantis told ABC’s “This Week.”
Nevertheless, DeSantis finished second in Iowa, nearly 30 percentage points behind Trump.
Trump and his supporters continue to argue without evidence that he’s being targeted by prosecutors and Democratic officials. Meanwhile, others have pointed out Trump doesn’t actually have to show up for his civil trials or appeals hearings.
For example, this week marks the start of another chapter in the defamation trial involving Carroll, who won a $5 million judgment against Trump last year for sexual abuse.
Trump’s decision to attend the trial on Tuesday and Wednesday, in the middle of the New Hampshire primary, was his call.
The former president sought to turn Wednesday’s court session into a political show, audibly complaining about a “witch hunt” and drawing a warning from Judge Lewis Kaplan that he could be excluded from the courtroom. Trump replied: “I would love it.”
And next month brings Trump the chance to campaign from the most famous courthouse of all: the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.
Justice are scheduled to hear arguments on Trump’s request to reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision excluding him from the 2024 ballot. Officials in Colorado and Maine have declared Trump ineligible for the presidency because of the anti-insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Trump does have to attend his criminal trials, but the former president has often made a political argument out of the indictments during his campaign. He’ll no doubt continue to do so whenever trials roll around.
Trump faces up to four criminal trials this year, unless the presidential candidate is able to delay them beyond Election Day.
A special prosecutor wants to try Trump in March over charges he tried to steal the 2020 election from President Joe Biden. That trial may be pushed back for pre-trial appeals by Trump. He also seeks to push back start dates for three other criminal trials.
They include a New York state case over hush money and a federal case in Florida involving Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents.
There is also a pending case in Georgia, in which Trump is accused of violating state conspiracy laws in trying to overturn his 2020 loss.
The ‘victim card’
So far, Trump has found political success by playing what pollster Frank Luntz calls “the victim card.”
“Every time he was indicted, his polls went up,” Luntz said. “Every time they tried to throw him off the ballot, his numbers went up.”
To be sure, moderates and some Republicans will continue to oppose Trump as his political schedule and legal schedule collide in the coming months. But that’s not necessarily a boost for Democrats, given that many of those same voters don’t like Biden either.
“The people in the center want a pox in both of their houses,” Luntz said.