Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump leaves a campaign rally, on Saturday, July 29, 2023, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Image Credit: AP

Washington: As mushrooming criminal probes threaten his political ambitions and his liberty, Donald Trump has been able to console himself with one encouraging constant: blockbuster polling numbers.

"I'm the only person (who) ever got indicted who became more popular," the former president and 2024 Republican primary frontrunner grinned in Iowa recently, an observation added to his stump speech in recent months.

Trump has been indicted in two criminal cases, with felony counts in two further investigations seemingly imminent, yet his popularity among his ultra-loyal base has not been dented in the slightest.

So when Trump is indicted, to his diehard loyalists it's just more proof that their man, their champion, is being targeted by forces they fundamentally distrust.

- David Greenberg, a journalism and history professor at Rutgers University

On Monday, a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely primary voters showed Trump crushing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by a staggering 37 points.

And the poll is hardly an outlier: the ex-commander-in-chief's lead has risen from 16 to 36 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls since he was indicted in Manhattan four months ago for falsifying business records.

During that period he has been found by a jury in a civil trial to have raped a writer in New York and has been charged with a further 40 federal felony counts over his handling of national security secrets and alleged obstruction of justice.

"By the time we get on the debate stage on August 23, the frontrunner will be out on bail in four different jurisdictions - Florida, Washington, Georgia and New York," fellow Republican White House hopeful Chris Christie told CNN on Sunday.

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally Saturday, July 29, 2023, in Erie, Pennsylvania. Image Credit: AP

'Entrenched elite'

While poor headlines for DeSantis may have contributed to the widening polling gap, Trump's favorability rating - 39.4 percent - is exactly the same as it was the day he was first charged.

A shift between now and Iowa's first-in-the-nation vote in January remains possible - but a turnaround that dramatic has never been seen in the modern presidential primary season.

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Analysts contacted by AFP to discuss Trump's poll numbers pointed to the lasting appeal of his populist message among blue-collar Americans.

"Multilateral trade agreements, open borders, forever wars and globalization left many hardworking Americans without jobs and with little future prospects," said Michael J. O'Neill, counsel at the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation.

"Trump gives a voice to that demographic. His supporters see Trump as a disrupter that is not beholden to the entrenched elite and gives everyday Americans a shot at a better life," O'Neill added.

For David Greenberg, a journalism and history professor at Rutgers University, 77-year-old Trump and his diehard loyalists have always been able to bond over a "common set of enemies" that has expanded to include the justice system.

"So when Trump is indicted, to them it's just more proof that their man, their champion, is being targeted by forces they fundamentally distrust," Greenberg told AFP.

'Controlling the narrative'

Trump left office in 2021 after a scandal-plagued single term in which he lost the White House and both chambers of Congress and was impeached twice.

Many aides were convicted of felonies, including his 2016 campaign chairman and deputy campaign chairman, his White House chief strategist and national security advisor, his personal lawyer and two foreign policy advisors.

His company, The Trump Organization, was convicted on multiple charges of tax fraud and its chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg admitted grand larceny, tax fraud and falsifying business records.

Trump himself was found by a jury in a civil lawsuit in May to have raped the writer E. Jean Carroll in New York in the 1990s and he has been accused by more than 20 other women of sexual misconduct.

Trump's impeachments were both related to alleged attempts to cheat in the 2020 election - first when he was found to have withheld vital military aid from Ukraine as he demanded it dig up dirt on Biden, and again for inciting an insurrection to prevent his opponent's eventual victory from being certified.

Even some Democrats give him credit for managing to convince millions of Republicans that a never-ending "witch hunt" by a mythical "deep state" is to blame for the whiff of scandal around his presidency.

"Trump has done an excellent job of not only controlling the narrative, but staying ahead of it," Democratic election strategist Amani Wells-Onyioha told AFP.

"He has consistently told his supporters that he is being unfairly attacked and that any accusations are lies aimed to take him down. They believe what he says because his indictments only feed into that narrative."