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Philip Wegmann Opinion: Trump Basks in Poll Surge, Campaign Warns Gag Order Would ‘Backfire’

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Even as Donald Trump prepared to fly to New York for his arraignment, those close to the former president were crediting the man who put him in so much legal jeopardy for the best polling bump he has seen in years: The Trump campaign tells RealClearPolitics that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is helping clear the field of Republican challengers, thereby easing his return to the White House.

“In the short term,” John McLaughlin told RCP, “this is really helping us in the primary.”

On the eve of the arraignment, Trump’s longtime pollster says his candidate “is getting significantly stronger, in spite of what they’re throwing at him, and it’s not making a dent in the general election numbers.”

McLaughlin predicted that even the worst-case scenario, a potential court-ordered gag order putting the candidate in a verbal straight jacket on the campaign trail, would “backfire,” telling RCP, “If he can’t speak out because of the trial, if they try to take his civil rights and his ability to run, it’s only going to lead to more support for him.”

That is how the Trump campaign sees the landscape as he prepares to become the first former president to face criminal charges, a picture buoyed by both internal and external polling and likely the impetus for his now infamous brag at the Conservative Political Action Committee.

Would he drop out of the race if indicted, asked James Rosen of Newsmax. “I wouldn’t even think of leaving,” Trump replied on March 4. “Probably it will enhance my numbers.”

On Saturday night, the Trump campaign blasted out an internal polling memo to reporters that was conducted over the previous two days after news broke of the former president’s indictment. In a survey of 1,000 likely voters, he led the Republican primary field by double digits with his closest competition, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, trailing Trump by 30 percentage points – up from 12 points in January.

According to that same polling, Trump leads President Biden 47% to 43%. Among Republicans, 65% say they want the former president to run again.

Jason Miller, Trump’s longtime aide and spokesman, said that “people are realizing the political nature of this, regardless of a pollster” and pointed RCP to outside surveys that showed the former president’s numbers improving.

In a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Republican voters said Trump “should not have been charged,” though overall a plurality of voters, 45%, believe that charges were in order. With regard to the nomination, a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll showed Trump lapping DeSantis soundly by 26 points, 57% to 31%, in a one-on-one contest. In the RealClearPolitics Average, meanwhile, he enjoys a commanding 20-point lead.

Martyrdom likely explains that development. Trump understands its value.

“In reality, they aren’t after me. They are after you,” he often tells supporters at rallies. “I’m just in the way.” A reliable catchphrase, Trump added the line to his repertoire years ago and rolls it out to explain away scandal or controversy. The looming indictment is no different. The right sees his legal trouble as nothing short of a personal affront and even an assault on the nation itself.

“The Democratic Party wants a one-party country. It wants a one-party system, and it has done the final thing that you do when you put the nail in the coffin of a Republic, which is take the law and use it against the law,” railed Mark Levin. “The Republicans better wake the hell up,” the Fox News commentator added. “We need to circle the wagons.”

Republicans have done exactly that, including each of Trump’s declared and potential rivals. DeSantis earned the ire of Trump World for even mentioning the underlying charges stemming from hush payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels when news broke of a looming indictment. When a grand jury voted to indict Trump two weeks later, the Florida governor condemned the charges and pledged not to cooperate with a New York extradition attempt.

McLaughlin said the old theory of the case among the GOP establishment that voters would warm to a so-called Trump-lite candidate, someone with populist policies but without personal baggage, “doesn’t make sense.” Conservatives have the most sway in a primary and they already favored Trump in his polling, he told RCP. If they needed additional motivation, he added, they are now angered by what they see as “a double standard of justice.”

A nation-wide book tour hasn’t improved the Florida governor’s standings ahead of his own expected announcement, he said, “because all this other stuff is eclipsing him.”

Miller added that “DeSantis doesn’t have a message other than that he is a Donald Trump tribute band” and said that there was “no reason to expect his numbers would go up” so long as he is just aping the former president.

Trump’s lawyers may add a First Amendment component to their defense strategy in the coming weeks and months. According to the Daily Mail, there are fears within his campaign that a judge may impose a gag order on the former president, prohibiting him from discussing the case under penalty of either a $1,000 fine or as much as a 30-day prison sentence. Such a move would make running for president that much more difficult.

But according to McLaughlin, it wouldn’t hurt his odds. “If Donald Trump cannot campaign for president because of this trial,” the campaign pollster told RCP, “it’s proving the point that this is a political persecution of Joe Biden‘s leading opponent.”

A longtime confidante of Trump rolled his eyes at that suggestion. “What do you expect them to say, ‘He’s in deep shit’?” the top ally quipped on condition of anonymity. “It is all spin, it isn’t going to help, and [the gag order] could be the first of many.”

Trump is also under investigation by the Fulton County district attorney’s office stemming from allegations that he tried overturning the 2020 election and pressuring Georgia officials to undo his loss there. The Biden administration’s Department of Justice, meanwhile, has two ongoing investigations into possible criminal actions by Trump, one that concerns his handling of classified material and another surrounding what happened on January 6.

Concurrent and cascading gag orders could potentially shorten Trump’s stump speech and last throughout the general election if the trial process drags on.

Republicans are confident Trump can survive those investigations. So are some Democrats, like former White House press secretary turned MSNBC commentator Jen Psaki, who urged liberals to avoid the temptation to make “a mass order of ‘Lock him Up’ t-shirts and mugs.” Psaki instead urged Democrats to “put your head down and stay out of it for now.”

Biden has taken that advice so far and refused to comment when pressed on the indictment, though it is no secret that Democrats would prefer to run against Trump in 2024. Dick Harpootlian, an old pal of the current president, told RCP last summer he was “praying” Trump would run again.

Trump spent the day preparing for the arraignment, reading through recent polling, and posting to his social media feed on Truth Social. “HEADING TO NEW YORK. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he said with familiar capitalization shortly after noon. “WITCH HUNT,” he followed up moments later, “as our once great Country is going to HELL!”

The fallout from the indictment will bring chaos. The historic nature of the charges guarantees an audience. Trump, no stranger to showmanship and confident in his campaign’s internal polling, will make the most of it. He is expected to speak from Mar-a-Lago in primetime Tuesday night.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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