How Democrats can avoid another historic misfire
On Wednesday evening, New York Attorney General Letitia James sued former President Donald Trump and several of his adult children for allegedly falsely inflating the values of his business and properties in order to defraud the state. The news captured headlines across the country, but it may prove to be less politically meaningful than some Democrats hope.
James’s civil lawsuit seeks a relative pittance in damages: just $250 million. James also stopped short of pursuing a criminal case against Trump, opting instead to refer her office’s findings to the federal attorneys representing the Southern District of New York and to the Internal Revenue Service. James’s actions may not go as far as some Trump critics wanted, but they nevertheless represent the opening of another damaging front for Trumpworld to contend with.
Plenty of pundits have washed up on the rocks after predicting the end of Trump’s political career, and his latest New York woes are no different. None of James’s latest charges – or any of the other controversies swirling around the former president – are likely to derail Trump’s widely-expected 2024 presidential announcement. In fact, Trump’s raft of legal troubles may actually be strengthening the zeal of his most die-hard supporters. If the sirens aren’t blaring in Democratic circles yet, they should be.
That isn’t to say Trump is still as popular overall as he was in 2020. An NBC News poll released on September 18 shows Trump with a national approval rating of just 34 percent, an all-time low. But Trump’s political strategy has never been about broad-based appeals to a general electorate. Instead, his approach is built on stoking sectarianism and keying into grievances that defy easy partisan categorization.
Take Michigan, where in 2016 Trump achieved an upset victory over Hillary Clinton. Trump did so not by appealing to a broad swath of Michiganders, but by driving up turnout from voters energized by Trump’s nativist rhetoric and promises to turn the United States into a protectionist paradise. The 12 counties Trump flipped from blue to red did so even while their voters held largely negative opinions of Trump personally.
What’s more, a chunk of Trump’s surge came from turning out first-time voters who responded to Trumpian rhetoric about migrant caravans and an imagined American decline. Some first-time voters, like Jace Laquerre, framed their support of Trump in the conspiratorial anti-Clinton rhetoric that is a GOP specialty. Whether or not voters like Trump, he’s proven effective at radicalizing them towards MAGA orthodoxy.
Trump’s 2024 calculus is slightly different, but not by much. Having spent his presidency delegitimizing American institutions including the FBI, the courts and even the peaceful transfer of power itself, the former president has primed his supporters to reject any effort to hold him accountable as fundamentally corrupt, a Deep State psyop manufactured by George Soros, Joe Biden or any Democrat who springs to mind.
There’s also the real possibility that polls showing Trump’s decline are setting Democrats up for another historic misfire. As The Economist points out, Trump’s strongest supporters are also the most likely to mislead or refuse to speak to pollsters. That phenomenon led to a major overestimation of Democratic strength in both 2016 and 2020. Until more evidence is available, there is no reason to think the MAGA distaste for polling and pollsters has changed much over the last six years.
Trump’s broad national unpopularity stands in stark contrast to his support within the Republican Party. Trump enjoys an 81 percent approval rating among Republican voters, and near-universal loyalty among GOP leadership. Those voters are likely to see Trump’s growing legal woes as a form of political martyrdom, and a leader whose support already veers uncomfortably close to cult worship will quickly close ranks around him if the Department of Justice proceeds with a federal indictment over his mishandling of classified documents.
Trump’s latest struggles have kicked off a new wave of skepticism about his political future. The Drudge Report blasted out a Thursday headline declaring “WALLS CLOSING IN.” A day earlier, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk poll showed Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) leading Trump 48 to 40 in a hypothetical Florida primary battle. That’s an impressive surge for DeSantis, who is widely regarded as Trump’s biggest challenger for the nomination. But the national picture shows a Republican Party still committed to the old boss: Fewer than one-in-five Republican voters support DeSantis, compared to 52 percent for Trump.
Donald Trump deserves every ounce of legal heartburn he’s receiving. His misconduct with classified material alone merits jail time. But far from weakening his hold on the GOP, Americans must expect that even an incarcerated Trump will vault in popularity among his truest believers. The only way Democrats can hope to prevent that is by driving up turnout among their own base. Fortunately, the Democratic base is more energized than it has been at any point in the last decade.
But turning out the base will not be enough. Democrats must fund extensive voter registration and engagement operations to both counter Trump’s unique appeal to first-time “nonpolitical” voters and to support beleaguered and underfunded state parties. A fundraising strategy that directs a majority of funds to the presidential ticket while leaving state parties to starve (as Hillary Clinton did in 2016) would be a recipe for disaster in 2024.
Democrats would be wrong to assume even a Trump conviction would change that calculus. The time to prepare a nationwide counteroffensive is now.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.