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What might Trump's latest indictment mean for the 2024 presidential election?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Republican voters like the ones we just heard from in upstate New York are part of the reason why Trump remains the front-runner by far in the 2024 GOP presidential race, and that doesn't sound like it's going to change right now. But will this federal indictment have an impact? Here to talk about that, I'm joined by Republican political strategist Sarah Longwell. She's the founder of the Republican Accountability Project. Good morning, Sarah. Thanks for being on the program.

SARAH LONGWELL: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: I'd love to start with just your reaction when the indictment was unsealed and you read the contents.

LONGWELL: Well, you know, I always think about this in terms of the voters 'cause I...

FADEL: Yeah.

LONGWELL: ...Conduct regular focus groups with two-time Trump voters. And I had actually just done one the day prior, and I knew how voters were going to react to this because they had told me over and over again in these groups - so similar to what we just heard...

FADEL: Yeah.

LONGWELL: ...Where they said they don't care. And the fact is their views around January 6 and Trump's role in it have been baked for a long time. I mean, I have been listening for, you know, over a year now to voters talk about how Trump is not responsible for what happened on January 6, and even, as one of the people was sort of intimating there, that it was a false flag operation. That is a very common thing that you hear in these focus groups. And so I had been hopeful, and I think a lot of people had been hopeful, even after people sort of dismissed the first indictment, that the accumulation of these indictments and the severity - the increasing severity of the indictments would start to chip away at Republican voter support.

But as I listened to voters, what's become just absolutely clear is that there is a rally-around Trump effect happening and that the accumulation is actually becoming sort of a white noise where the voters can't really tell them apart, and they don't distinguish the severity. They just know, oh, there's another indictment. I don't care. This is just them trying to get Trump. And they're sort of tuning it out. But, man, do I hear often how much it - almost never does somebody say it makes them support Trump less. But very often, people say it makes them support Trump more.

FADEL: I mean, because so far, the polls track with what you're saying, that every time Trump faces legal troubles, his lead in the GOP primary seems to go up. So are these indictments actually great for his campaign?

LONGWELL: Well, I don't know that it's just the indictments. I mean, part of the problem is that, No. 1, all the attention, all the focus is on Trump, and so there's not really an opportunity for anyone else to break through, and also that his challengers have all decided to essentially defend him on all of these counts. And so when they all rush to his defense, they essentially become sort of supporting players in a central drama surrounding Donald Trump.

FADEL: But why are they making that decision? I'm curious about that. You see Vivek Ramaswamy, one of his opponents, vowing to pardon him, suing the DOJ. What's the calculation there?

LONGWELL: I think that nobody has figured out how to go after Donald Trump without alienating his base of voters. And I think that something that has animated the Republican Party since Trump came along is this fear of Trump's base because it is so unshakable. And so these challengers made, I think, the wrong calculation, especially Ron DeSantis, that rather than try to sort of consolidate that part of the party that does want to move on from Trump and try to build support from there, every - you know, Ron DeSantis has gone after Trump's base, and they're not leaving Donald Trump. And as a result, there's just nobody who has challenged Trump effectively.

And, you know, you can't beat something with nothing. And right now, these candidates have nothing. And as long as they continue to rush to Trump's defense, voters are going to continue - I mean, every elected Republican is making the argument that there is a two-tier justice system. Ron DeSantis is running on the idea that he is going to, you know, de-weaponize the Justice Department. With messages like those, you could see why voters don't think Trump did anything wrong because every Republican and conservative media outlet is telling them he did nothing wrong.

FADEL: Sarah Longwell is a Republican political strategist. Thanks for your time.

LONGWELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARTIKA'S "A SLIGHT RETURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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