Former President Donald Trump has now been indicted twice in federal cases, and yet his popularity among Republican voters for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination remains undiminished and has actually increased. Jeanne Sheehan examines why Trump’s popularity remains strong. Drawing on social psychology, she writes that the other civil charges Trump has also faced may be ‘diluting’ the importance of the federal charges in the minds of many voters, making them seem less serious and important.
With just one month to go until the first Republican primary debate August 23rd many election watchers are asking how is it that Donald Trump – despite two federal indictments and two more likely on their way – continues to have such a commanding lead in the polls and in fundraising?
The RealClear Politics (RCP) average of polls shows that Trump is 32 points ahead of his nearest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Figure 1 from RCP provides a telling snapshot of the state of the race over the last year (July 1, 2022-July 11, 2023).
Figure 1 – Real Clear Politics average of 2024 Republican presidential nomination polls
Trump’s strong lead has persisted so far despite the indictments
Three things are worth noting. First, the race has changed little over the last year. Second, despite some ebbs and flows, Trump has maintained a strong double-digit lead over the last twelve months. Third, Trump’s lead has persisted despite substantial electoral and legal challenges.
The electoral challenges began with the poor showing of many of Trump’s handpicked candidates in the 2022 midterm elections; those losses were exacerbated by DeSantis’ impressive twenty-point victory in the Florida governor’s race. This helps explain why, in the weeks after the November Election, Trump’s numbers dropped below 50 percent for the first time and DeSantis’ support increased; the result was a 13 percent-point gap between the two, the narrowest of the cycle.
Unfortunately, DeSantis’ ability to close the gap further was upended by two events. In late March, Trump was indicted by Manhattan District Attorney (DA) Alvin Bragg on 34 felony counts stemming from a pay-off he allegedly made to an adult entertainment star and misdeeds involving his organization’s financial record keeping. Far from dimming his support, however, the charges only increased Trump’s standing in the polls, pushing him over 50 percent once again.
Commentators speculated that Trump’s surge was likely due to the fact that many legal observers were skeptical about the Bragg indictment. They had a point, in a legally unusual move, the DA had used a still unknown set of offenses to upgrade the charges against the former president from misdemeanors to felonies.
If the weakness of Bragg’s case helped explain the increase in support for Trump, the strength of the second set of charges by Special Counsel Jack Smith should have resulted in an opposite scenario, but they did not. In June, Smith charged the former president with 37 felony counts stemming from alleged mishandling of classified documents at, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida residence. Despite the seriousness of the indictment and the fact that he had become the first president/former president to ever face felony charges, Trump continued to have a commanding 30-point lead.
Trump’s strong showing in the polls after both indictments has been matched by his strong fundraising numbers. The second quarter financials were due in early July and while we will not know the actual numbers until they are released by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in a few weeks, reports suggest that in the three months following the indictments, Trump’s committee raised a record breaking $35 million (April-June 2023); double what they raised in the first quarter of this year.
Explaining Trump’s continued popularity among Republican voters
Trump’s electoral strength considering these indictments has baffled commentators and pundits alike. Some have speculated it is a sure sign that he is ‘Teflon-Don’ and that he was not far off in 2016 when he boasted that he, “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any votes.”
Others have suggested it is a result of the fact that many in the GOP believe his claims that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been politicized, the cases are weak, and he is the victim of a witch-hunt by political opponents. Still others have blamed it on the extreme polarization gripping the US.
Social science theory, however, offers another explanation for Trump’s seeming ‘Teflon’ status. The ‘dilution effect theory,’ first identified in 1981 by University of Michigan social psychologist Richard Nisbett and others, has since gained widespread acceptance. Sometimes known as the ‘averaging effect’ it is a “judgement bias in which people underutilize diagnostic information when non-diagnostic information is present.” As Nisbett and his co-authors found in their study, based on five experiments involving almost 400 participants, nondiagnostic information, or information that is only minimally useful, “dilutes” the impact of more diagnostic or relevant information. To put it another way, when it comes to persuasion, less is almost always more.
When applied to the case of Trump’s confounding prowess in the polls, the dilution effect theory suggests that one explanation lies in the sheer amount of non-diagnostic (less important) charges against him. In short, the public is less likely to view the charges levied against him by Smith and the Department of Justice as serious because they have been overwhelmed with ‘non-diagnostic charges’ (i.e., the Bragg case, the E. Jean Carroll case, as well as the almost two dozen other cases Trump has or may soon face).
Why more is less when it comes to Trump’s indictments
As counter intuitive as it sounds, the Bragg indictment, Carroll case, etc. may help Trump in the court of public opinion to the extent they dilute the impact of the more serious charges (i.e., the Smith indictment). The same cannot be said of how he will fare in the court of law.
A good example of the dilution effect at work, in a non-political realm, concerns drug advertisements. In the late 1990s, to provide consumers with all the information necessary to make informed decisions about their medications, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring that pharmaceutical companies present a complete list of all potential side effects in their advertisements.
The result is one most Americans are aware of – commercials for drugs contain warnings aplenty, from the serious to the benign. Case in point, advertisements for the sleeping pill Lunesta include warnings about everything from suicide and “tongue or throat swelling,” to more common side effects such as “unpleasant taste, headache, dizziness, and drowsiness.”
The FDA assumed that hearing all the potential side effects would lead consumers to judge the drug as riskier, but studies show that is not the case. When advertisements include all side effects, both serious and minor, consumers judge “the overall severity of the side effects to be lower than when they” are “exposed to only major ones.” As a result, they are not only more likely to prefer the drug but more willing to pay a higher price for it.
Since then, the finding has been widely observed and replicated in social research. In a now classic study, for instance, Henri Zukier, et al in the early 1980s asked mock jurors to determine whether a man had murdered his aunt. One group in the study was given only diagnostic information (i.e., the man did not have an alibi and had argued with his aunt). A second group was given the same information, but in addition they were told nondiagnostic information pertaining to things like the man’s vision and height. The extraneous information not only diluted the impact of the diagnostic but left the second group comparatively less confident about the man’s guilt.
Why Trump may yes survive these charges, at least politically
Since the indictments, Trump has been defiantly lashing out at Smith, Bragg, Attorney General Merrick Garland, President Biden, and the DOJ, amongst others; he has also consistently predicted that the charges will help his standing as the GOP front runner. He is likely correct on the latter, but this is not because, as he likes to claim, the indictments are “baseless” or because the ‘Biden DOJ’ has been weaponized against him.
If he survives in the court of public opinion, it will be a result of the dilution effect; the fact that over the years so many charges of varying degrees of seriousness have been levied against him that the public has averaged them together; and the more pertinent have been diluted by the less significant.
When it comes to persuasion, less is almost always more. If Trump survives politically, it will likely be a result of over-reach and over-charging by well-meaning individuals which, in the end, did little but cloud the publics’ judgement.
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