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A Televised Trial in Georgia Could Damage Trump, Experts Say

Republican voters who pay attention to the news are more likely to say the indictments are “legitimate.”

Donald Trump looks on during round three at the 2023 LIV Golf Bedminster at the Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 13, 2023.

A new survey suggests the growing pile of criminal indictments and felony charges against Donald Trump could eventually erode the former president’s substantial lead in the GOP primary if enough voters pay attention to news from reliable outlets.

Republicans who correctly answered three questions gauging their knowledge of politics and current events — a sign they pay attention to the news — were much more likely than others to see indictments against Trump as “legitimate” and consider voting for a different Republican, according to a new national survey of 800 likely Republican primary voters by Fairleigh Dickinson University. In all, 48 percent of Trump supporters said they would at least consider voting for a different Republican, a number that jumps to 54 percent when respondents were first reminded by pollsters about the indictments against Trump.

However, only 17 percent of all Republican primary voters said the indictments are “legitimate” compared to 75 percent who say they are not legitimate. Many GOP voters are likely influenced by Trump’s fantastic claims about left-wing conspiracies and political persecution, a narrative the Trump campaign is using both to obscure the gravity of the charges in the media and raise millions of dollars off MAGA fans to pay legal bills. Another 8 percent were unsure.

Trump retained a considerable lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his top rival in the primary, even among Republicans who take the indictments seriously and are more likely to follow reliable new outlets. The question now is whether DeSantis and other rivals can chip away at Trump’s lead in the polls as primary voters watch various legal dramas play out in court and voters get to know the other candidates.

The survey concluded one week before a Georgia grand jury handed down the latest indictment, which charges Trump and 18 associates on a total of 41 counts for allegedly attempting to defraud voters by intimidating election officials and meddling with results as part of a conspiracy to keep Trump in power after losing in 2020 to President Joe Biden.

Trump also faces federal charges recently filed by special counsel Jack Smith for the election subversion scheme, as well as criminal indictments in two other jurisdictions. At this point, Trump faces a litany of felony charges filed in four different jurisdictions. A civil jury also recently found Trump liable for sexually abusing a woman in 1996 and publicly defaming her for years.

“All the bad news in the world doesn’t matter if voters aren’t paying attention to the news,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics, and director of the poll. “The indictments hurt Trump among knowledgeable Republicans, but there aren’t enough of them to cost Trump the primary, at least not yet.”

It’s unclear how news of the latest indictment out of Georgia would have impacted the survey results, which likely reflect whether GOP primary voters see Trump as electable in the general election rather than as innocent or guilty of charges. However, experts say even deeply partisan voters can reach a “tipping point” and change their minds if they are continually exposed to corrective evidence. Trump always tries to muddy the waters, and that’s one reason why leaders of progressive groups such as Black Voters Matter and Public Citizen said this week that the trial in Georgia must be televised. Voters need to see the slow and steady process of prosecution play out for themselves.

“Trump is an expert at disinformation and understands intuitively how to capitalize on short attention spans and lack of political literacy,” said Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at Boston University and author of a forthcoming book on disinformation and democracy, in an email. “One way he does this is by creating a constant state of chaos where so much is happening that people don’t have time to think, talk to one another, and form their own opinions.”

Of all of Trump’s legal troubles, experts say the Georgia indictment may pose the greatest threat to his presidential ambitions. Trump and his co-defendants are charged under Georgia’s broad racketeering law, and a dramatic, televised trial would publicly rehash a bold attempt at election subversion that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol at a time when many in the GOP are ready to move on from 2020.

Georgia prosecutors are not beholden to the Justice Department, making it difficult for Trump to quash the case or pardon himself if he were to retake the White House in 2025. Unlike federal courts, TV cameras are usually allowed in Georgia state courts, which could provide millions of viewers with an intimate look at the proceedings and details of the case. Star witnesses could include people such as Ruby Freeman, the Black Georgia poll worker that prosecutors say was harassed and intimidated by Trump associates as baseless accusations of ballot fraud in the far right media led to a barrage of death threats that turned her life upside down.

To avoid putting all this on TV, Trump’s attorneys are expected to file a motion to move the case from Georgia to a federal court, likely arguing that the former president was acting in “official capacity” as he sought to overthrow the election, according to Norm Eisen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a CNN legal analyst. Eisen said such a motion would be legally baseless and ultimately intended to move a trial away from courtroom cameras.

“That’s why the stakes are so great for that removal motion, among other reasons,” Eisen told reporters on Tuesday.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him and is expected to do so in the Georgia case, all while continuing his habit of viciously attacking the prosecutors, judges and jury members presiding over his various legal snafus.

Besides former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, most GOP primary candidates are wary of the former president’s ability to whip up vitriol and racist hatred on social media and have largely avoided criticizing Trump and his behavior, although DeSantis and others now appear to be warming up for some Trump-level mudslinging.

At some point these candidates must crack open Trump’s large support base to succeed, but so far that has not happened, according to the new poll. When asked who they would vote for if the primary were held tomorrow, 58 percent named Trump while 15 percent would vote for DeSantis and 5 percent for Christie.

“All of these legal problems are having an effect,” Cassino said. “But even if Trump lost all of his supporters who say they’re open to someone else, he’d still be in the lead.”

In order to gauge which Republican primary voters are paying attention to reliable news, Cassino’s pollsters asked respondents to identify three high-profile officeholders: GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. (While these may seem like basic political literacy questions, Sunak, for example, has made fewer headlines in the U.S. than his flamboyant predecessor, Boris Johnson.) Among respondents who could not name any of the officeholders, only 15 percent said the indictments against Trump are “legitimate.” Fifty-five percent of these voters said they support Trump for the nomination compared to 11 percent who support DeSantis and another 11 percent who support former Vice President Mike Pence.

However, respondents considered politically knowledgeable because they named all three officeholders correctly were nearly twice as likely (28 percent) to say the “indictments” are legitimate and also showed greater support for DeSantis, although DeSantis still trailed behind Trump by 27 points.

The pollsters also ran an experiment by asking half of respondents about the indictments before asking about their preferred candidates, thus reminding them that Trump faces multiple criminal charges. When reminded about the indictments first, the number of respondents who said they were open to a candidate besides Trump grew by 11 points, from 43 percent to 54 percent.

“Yes, a great number of Republicans right now are with Trump, but notice that when folks are simply ‘reminded’ of the indictments, his support erodes from some in that instant,” McIntyre said, pointing to a 2010 study on changing opinions. “So, imagine what happens when it is a cumulative effect over and over again, especially when other Republicans start to melt away.”

McIntyre said he expects this to happen with Trump, and the indictment in Georgia is only beginning.

“Like a glacier melting, it will happen slowly at first, then suddenly and completely,” McIntyre said.

Svante Myrick, president of People For the American Way, a decades-old progressive group, said we are still living in a dangerous time for U.S. democracy. Myrick says it’s dangerous that Trump supporters still believe Trump even when he is lying to them and there is plenty of available evidence to the contrary. And it will be dangerous if Republican voters fail to appreciate the seriousness of the charges against Trump and therefore “refuse to accept the consequences” he may face.

Like other advocates, Myrick said the trial in Georgia must be televised, because “people believe what they see on their screens.” Instead of asking whether Trump or the media is telling the truth, Myrick suggested GOP voters turn the question around and ask themselves why they support a candidate who faces four separate criminal indictments in the first place.

“It’s not just four prosecutors,” Myrick said during a press conference on Tuesday. “It’s grand juries — dozens of American citizens who reviewed the evidence and indicted him — what do they know that you as a voter don’t?”

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