November 9, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Trump isn’t ‘the sword of Gryffindor’

Democrats have had that idea drummed into them over the last eight years, says Matt Robison, host of the Beyond Politics podcast. 

Courtesy of Creative Commons.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

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When it comes to me and Matt Robison, I’m usually the one answering questions, not asking them. But this time, I wanted to see what the host of the Beyond Politics podcast had to say about 2024.

Among other things, I asked Matt for his thoughts on the effect of third-party candidates on Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns; on Nikki Haley as a real challenge to Trump’s lead; on the legal efforts to keep Trump off the ballot in key states; and the impact on Trump’s campaign if he were no longer the head of the Trump Organization.

“The media narrative that the criminal indictments against Trump have helped him politically is totally wrong. Whenever Trump has risen in the polls, it’s simply because Ron DeSantis has fallen behind and Trump is the second choice of a lot of DeSantis voters.”

Worth underscoring here is Matt’s theory about the various and sundry criminal indictments against Trump. They are not making him stronger, he told me, though that’s the media narrative about them. 

Evidence suggests that they are making him weaker. He only looks stronger, Matt said, when alternatives to him fumble. “Whenever Trump has risen in the polls, it’s because Ron DeSantis has fallen behind and Trump is the second choice of a lot of DeSantis voters.”

JS: We’re a year out from the election. How do things look to you?

MR: I’m like most Democrats, stuck between two impulses: my read from a 30,000-foot level, which tells me that it is extremely unlikely that Donald Trump has gained any supporters since the 2020 election, which he lost by 7 million votes, and my tendency toward what 2012 Obama reelection campaign manager Jim Messina called bed-wetting.  

On the bed-wetting side, I’m not that concerned about national polling numbers that show Joe Biden and Trump tied, but I’m definitely a lot more concerned about swing state polling that shows the president behind Trump, especially in the three critical states Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia that he won by fewer than 40,000 votes. 

I’m also not thrilled about what the third-party candidacies could do in those states. I’m not psyched about persistent negative voter views on the economy despite 4.9 percent GDP growth. Maybe it’s fair to say that I sleep relatively soundly at night on a slightly damp mattress.

JS: About those third parties — Robert F. Kennedy, Dean Phillips, Cornel West — what’s your thinking? Opportunists or genuine candidates?

MR: In their own minds, genuine candidates. In reality, potential spoilers, but it’s not clear for whom. Cornel West may not end up on the ballot in all states but having a prominent African-American third-party candidate in any swing state at a time when African-American turnout is already down can’t be good for Biden. 

Dean Phillips … Look, I’m not saying that it’s impossible but I think it’s extremely unlikely that he becomes a factor. RFK is a really interesting case. There’s some substantial reporting that the Trump campaign is nervous about him, but I don’t think the Biden campaign is thrilled either. They’ve got these tiny margins of victory from last time in those critical swing states and anything that introduces an element of chaos especially to late-deciding voters who may dislike both major party candidates, the so-called double-haters, is going to be a concern.

JS: Mike Pence is out. Ron DeSantis’ campaign is wobbling. Some say Nikki Haley is an alternative to Trump. Real or makebelieve?

MR: It is makebelieve. Political reporters and cable channels looking for intrigue keep trying to make it a thing. Trump is ahead by 49 points in national polling averages. In Iowa, it’s 39 points. In New Hampshire, it’s 30 points. And his polling is very steady. Haley has been rising but it’s at the expense of other candidates, most notably Ron DeSantis.

In fact, the media narrative that the criminal indictments against Trump have helped him politically is totally wrong. Whenever Trump has risen in the polls, it’s simply because Ron DeSantis has fallen behind and Trump is the second choice of a lot of DeSantis voters.

JS: About those indictments. Perhaps Trump isn’t made of Teflon?

MR: I’m not sure what he is made of! Maybe Roy Cohn’s id? You do raise something interesting. Democrats have had it drummed into us over the last eight years that Trump is essentially like the sword of Gryffindor: he imbibes anything bad and it only makes him stronger. 

But there’s evidence the charges are having an effect. Over the summer, the proportion of Republicans saying they believed he’s done nothing wrong dropped by nine points. The number of Americans in general who believe him guilty of some wrongdoing has been consistently high. Three of his lawyers have flipped and pled guilty. 

I just had NBC News legal analyst Barb McQuade on my podcast Beyond PoliticsShe laid out the case for why their testimony could be really devastating to Trump. So yes, I do agree that he is not impervious and there is a real likelihood at this point that he faces at least one conviction and that that could come with a real political cost.

JS: I’m trying to imagine a candidacy in which Trump is no longer in control of the Trump organization. That could be the outcome of his fraud trial in New York. Obviously, he’d cry foul. But people who love his image of power might see a paper tiger instead. Thoughts?

MR: It’s an interesting scenario you lay out. There are definitely plenty of examples of people who once held a powerful psychological sway over their followers becoming de-fanged when they appeared financially diminished or otherwise knocked off their perch of power. 

But I have a sinking feeling that for Trump’s core followers, this is much more a situation where they are going to continue to double down. Sort of like the classic 1050s Leon Festinger study “when prophecies fail,” which showed that members of a doomsday cult didn’t abandon their beliefs when the time and date for the end of the world came and went. That only reinforced them and they doubled down. 

I think we’re at that point with a significant number of Trump’s followers. Still … what we’re really talking about ultimately here is very small margins in a handful of states. And that small slice of Republican voters, who I mentioned earlier, seem to be coming a little less glued to Trump. So Trump losing control of his organization and losing a few thousand voters in Arizona could be a big deal.

JS: What’s your sense of the legal efforts to prevent Trump’s name from appearing in ballots in key states? Pie in the sky or legit?

MR: I think it’s somehow both, but mostly pie in the sky. I had the man who brought the 14th amendment challenge to Trump appearing on the ballot in New Hampshire on my podcast. He’s a former Trump-endorsed Republican US Senate candidate. He laid out why he was doing it and the constitutional case. And it was persuasive. 

Practically, the secretary of state of New Hampshire found a way to say no way. It looks like most states are heading down that road and even if they don’t, the whole thing will end up in a Supreme Court challenge that is unlikely to resolve before the election or would be considered so close to the election that the court would not want to interfere. So at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s likely to have an effect.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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