Before Trial, Was Trump Benefiting From Being Out of the News?

Donald J. Trump appears to be a stronger candidate than he was four years ago, polling suggests, and not just because a notable number of voters look back on his presidency as a time of relative peace and prosperity.

It’s also because his political liabilities, like his penchant to offend and his legal woes, don’t dominate the news the way they once did.

In the last New York Times/Siena College poll, only 38 percent of voters said they’d been offended by Mr. Trump “recently,” even as more than 70 percent said they had been offended by him at some point.

We didn’t ask a question like this back in 2016 or 2020 for comparison (unfortunately), but my subjective thumb-in-the-wind gauge says that, if we had, more voters would have said yes to the “recently offended” question. Mr. Trump’s most outrageous comments just don’t dominate the news cycle the way they did four to eight years ago.

Similarly, many voters seem to be tuning out his myriad legal challenges. A majority of voters said they thought he had committed federal crimes, but only 27 percent of registered voters in the last Times/Siena poll said they were paying “a lot of attention” to the news about the legal cases against him. That’s much lower than the 39 percent back in October 2019 who said they were paying a lot of attention to the Trump-Ukraine controversy (the “perfect” phone call).

It seems plausible that the lack of attention paid to Mr. Trump contributed to his early strength in the polling. Voters generally still don’t like him — in fact, his favorability rating is unchanged from our 2020 polling. But his liabilities just aren’t in the forefront of people’s minds, making it easier for the “double haters” — those who tell pollsters they dislike both candidates — to back him over President Biden.

The Times/Siena poll offers some evidence to support this idea. Mr. Biden has a 95-3 lead among Biden 2020 voters who say they’ve been offended recently by Mr. Trump, while Mr. Trump wins 19 percent of those who say they’ve been offended by him before, but not recently.

Similarly, Mr. Biden leads, 93-5, among Biden ’20 voters paying attention to Mr. Trump’s legal problems, while he gets 78 percent among those who aren’t paying very close attention or less.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mr. Biden would win back his former supporters if Mr. Trump said something sufficiently offensive, or if they paid more attention to his legal battles.

Perhaps those who haven’t been offended by Mr. Trump recently actually read his remarks comparing his political opponents to “vermin,” or heard him say undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country” — but simply weren’t repelled by them.

Still, it remains plausible to think Mr. Biden’s standing might improve if the news were Trump, Trump, Trump all the time. And against that backdrop, the trial of Mr. Trump in Manhattan is all the more interesting.

In one sense, the allegations against him are old news. You wouldn’t expect them to flip many votes, or change anyone’s opinion of him. But it’s the kind of story that would have dominated the news when Mr. Trump was president and that hasn’t quite broken through over the last six months or so. A trial might just be the kind of media spectacle that manages to put Mr. Trump, not Mr. Biden, front and center.

Perhaps it’s the kind of event that leads those double haters to remember why they disliked Mr. Trump more than Mr. Biden four years ago.

It’s hard to sort through the early polls about the Trump trial that began this week.

Our Times/Siena poll, for instance, found that most voters thought the charges that he falsified business records related to hush money payments were “serious” and that he ought to be found “guilty” in the case.

On the other hand, according to AP/NORC, only one in three Americans said Mr. Trump did something illegal in the case.

These two results seem pretty contradictory. This kind of split is probably mostly attributable to the wording of the question, not the underlying sample of the poll.

Consider the two questions, with the AP one coming first:

  • When it comes to each of the following, do you think Donald Trump has done something illegal, or he has done something unethical, but not illegal, or do you think he has not done anything wrong? If you don’t know enough to say, you can say that too. […] Allegations that he covered up hush money payments to a woman who said he had an affair with her.

  • Regardless of whether you think Donald Trump did this, do you think the charges that he falsified business records related to hush money payments made to the porn star Stormy Daniels are very serious, somewhat serious, not too serious or not at all serious?

The AP question does not specify the nature of the potentially illegal conduct (falsifying business records), and it doesn’t imply that he’s already been charged with a crime. In the case of the Times/Siena poll, those mentions may subtly nudge voters toward believing it’s a serious matter. The AP question also offers a middle-ground option that the charges are unethical but not illegal.

That’s a lot to sort through, so here’s a rule of thumb: When I see question wording producing very large effects, I usually take it as a sign that voters just don’t have especially well-formed feelings about the issue.

After all, most voters haven’t been paying attention to Mr. Trump’s legal woes in general, according to the Times/Siena poll, and this is arguably the lowest-profile case of the bunch.

Echelon Insights asked voters an … unusual … series of questions about whether Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump would perform better at a variety of tasks, from building Ikea furniture to eating a hot dog.

Mr. Trump prevailed on almost every task, but Mr. Biden actually led the poll in the presidential race, 49 percent to 46 percent.

It turns out that being better at “fighting a medium-sized dog” isn’t necessarily the trait voters are looking for in their president.