(NEW YORK) — A day after a New York jury verdict that found Donald Trump liable for battery and defamation flooded the airwaves, it appeared on Wednesday to have caused little more than a ripple on the 2024 campaign trail.
To be sure, the finding in the civil case that a former president and campaign front-runner should pay $5 million for sexually abusing and defaming columnist E. Jean Carroll marked what would normally be a stunning story. Yet, critics and allies alike suggested it would do little to knock Trump off his perch atop primary polls as he seeks a third straight GOP presidential nomination.
“I think many Republican voters think one of two things. One, is they view this in a larger context of the media and the left and those in New York City and elsewhere are out to get him, out to get Trump. Whether it’s the indictment stuff, the FBI raids, whatever it might be, this is another piece to all of that,” said one adviser to a possible Trump primary opponent.
“Second, I think there’s such a drumbeat of all this stuff that I think eventually folks tune it out,” this person added. “A lot of people have made up their mind about him. There are no undecided people when it comes to the former president. So, if you don’t like Donald Trump, you were still not gonna like Donald Trump. If you like Donald Trump, this isn’t gonna change your mind.”
The expected impact on the campaign trail was reflected in comments from Trump’s GOP primary rivals, which either cast doubt on whether voters cared about the verdict or cast doubt on the proceedings themselves.
“I’ll say what everyone else is privately thinking: if the defendant weren’t named Donald Trump, would we be talking about this today, would there even be a lawsuit?” Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author running in the primary, asked in a statement.
“I’m not going to get into that,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told radio host Hugh Hewitt Wednesday. “I’m doing town halls all over Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. And they are concerned about inflation. They’re concerned about their kids’ education. They’re concerned about the border and how out of control it is. They’re concerned about crime and what’s happening with why is there a Chinese spy balloon flying over us. Those are the things they care about.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential campaign in the coming weeks, dodged a question on the verdict at a news conference Wednesday, and former Vice President Mike Pence, another potential presidential aspirant, told NBC News that he didn’t expect voters to pay much attention to it and that he “never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature” while serving in Trump’s administration.
As of Wednesday afternoon, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the only GOP presidential contender to directly take on Trump over the verdict.
“Over the course of my over 25 years of experience in the courtroom, I have seen firsthand how a cavalier and arrogant contempt for the rule of law can backfire. The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump,” he said in a statement.
The reluctance to bash the former president underscored both Trump’s grip over a large slice of the GOP base and the electoral reality for many of his rivals.
“All of his opponents, with the exception for maybe one or two, are in a place where they need to introduce themselves right now. And there’s little to gain by introducing themselves in the terms of a New York jury verdict about a case of this nature regarding Donald Trump,” the adviser to a possible opponent said.
But even off the campaign trail in Washington, Trump drew only a handful more detractors.
While Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the verdict “doesn’t put a check mark in the positive category” and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said “I hope the jury of the American people reach the same conclusion which is he is not fit to become the president of the United States,” even critics in Washington were less bullish.
“I think that people who hate Trump will always hate Trump regardless of what he does. I think people who love Trump will always love Trump regardless of what he does, so I think it’s kind of a non-issue,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who last year called DeSantis the leader of the GOP.
Other strategists suggested that while the verdict itself might not turn off primary voters, the compilation of scandals could make voters concerned enough over his ability to win a general election that they might turn to a primary alternative.
“This stuff is mostly priced in, and a lot of Republicans have a reflexive need to defend Trump, who is always under attack from his perceived enemies. That said, this is another log on the fire, and the cumulative effect of these indictments and potential indictments, including this judgement will add up for voters. It goes not only to his character but to his electability,” said Iowa-based GOP strategist David Kochel.
However, the kind of fractured response following the verdict could help Trump once again defy political gravity when accused of sexual misconduct and other scandals, said anti-Trump GOP pollster Sarah Longwell.
Longwell told ABC News that a recent seven-person focus group she conducted included only one person who had heard of the Carroll case and that even an avalanche of scandal might not be enough to undermine Trump’s support if the reaction to Tuesday’s verdict repeats itself.
“These verdicts have the potential to change something, but it requires Republicans to get loud about them,” Longwell said. “As long as Trump’s 2024 rivals and elected Republicans don’t in one voice speak out against Trump whenever he’s indicted or impeached or found liable in a sexual assault case, as long as they continue to run cover for him, the Republican voters are gonna continue to feel like it’s fine to continue to support Trump.”
Longwell added that disjointed Republican responses to past scandals and controversial remarks from Trump have helped beliefs like widespread election fraud seep deep into the GOP base.
And with a broad swath of the party believing the former president is victim of a “witch hunt,” some suggest the Carroll verdict could help solidify his campaign position.
“It’s just a bunch of liberals up there anyway,” Moye Graham, the chair of the Clarendon County, South Carolina Republican Party said of the New York jury. “I don’t think it’ll change a thing … It might make him stronger.”
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.