Some Republican contenders for president are arguing that it’s the news media, not voters on the campaign trail, who are gripped by former President Trump’s legal woes.
The discord comes after Trump dominated headlines when he was arraigned last week on federal charges in Washington, D.C., related to his attempts to stay in power after the 2020 election.
At least two GOP candidates — former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — complained over the weekend that there was a discrepancy between wall-to-wall media coverage of Trump’s indictments and how much voters along the campaign trail are interested in the former president’s legal woes.
Asked on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday for his reaction to the indictments, Burgum managed to dodge several questions on that and Trump in general. Burgum instead said he’d “leave it to the pundits” because “there’s an entire industry built around commenting” on the former president.
“I mean, we’re in a position today where, when we’re out talking to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re not asking about the indictments. If they want to, they can turn on a cable news network and watch that seven by 24,” the North Dakota governor said.
Pence on Sunday said the recent charges against Trump have spurred “renewed focus” on Trump’s actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, which also saw Pence being hurried to safety from Trump supporters.
“But I got to tell you, everywhere I go, people are telling me, ‘Thank you for talking about the issues we’re dealing with and not what the media is talking about any given day of the week,’” Pence said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” responding to a question about whether he’d vote for Trump again.
Trump’s former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was asked in a recent appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” whether it would help Republicans get their message out if Trump dropped out of the race.
“Well, none of us want to be talking about indictments. I don’t even know if it’s the third, fourth, or fifth indictment right now. But what I can tell you is: It’s a distraction,” Haley answered.
“Frankly, the media is talking about it nonstop, but when I do these town halls, the American public is not talking to me about that. They’re not asking me about indictments,” she said.
Republican strategists also contend the average voter is more worried about inflation, jobs and the cost of food and fuel.
“The media is covering the Trump indictments far more than the American people care,” GOP strategist Brian Darling said. “They don’t really care about the Trump indictment as much as the media does because it doesn’t impact their day-to-day lives.”
Other GOP voters take issue with what they believe are politically motivated charges spurred by Trump’s likely opponent in the general election if he wins his party’s nomination, strategists said.
“Most Republican primary voters look at the indictment du jour and see it as a Democrat-dominated government trying to stop Donald Trump from being president again,” said Ohio-based GOP strategist Mark Weaver.
“Having said that, those voters also are more interested in issues like inflation, like illegal immigration, like the rise of crime and weaponization of government, and they don’t spend their dinner table conversation talking about Donald Trump’s indictment du jour,” Weaver said.
That picture also seems to be crystallizing on the ground, according to national polls — at least when it comes to how it will impact how voters will cast their ballots in the primary.
At the time when Trump was facing only two indictments, a June NBC News poll found 63 percent of GOP primary voters said the recent charges against Trump gave them “no real concerns” about the Republican front-runner.
Another June poll from Quinnipiac University found that only 18 percent of Republicans believed the federal criminal charges facing Trump in the case involving classified documents were “very serious,” compared with 75 percent of Democrats who felt the same.
Nearly half of the Republicans polled in a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey said they would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a felony, but 35 percent said they would still back the former president.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, argued the current level of coverage of Trump could run the risk of raising the former president’s profile as the race heads toward a possible Trump-Biden rematch, but said that the unprecedented legal battles the former president faces have to be covered regardless.
“I don’t think it’s being over-covered because, again, we’re in uncharted territory here. The country’s never been through this in real time, in this way, with the 24-hour news cycle,” Seawright said of the indictments.
But Weaver, the GOP strategist, said the stories aren’t sticking with many in the Republican crowd.
“Most stories surrounding the Trump indictments are eagerly consumed by passionate Trump haters and defiant Trump lovers, and the rest of the country turns the page or clicks to the next link,” Weaver said.
Burgum’s campaign dubbed the coverage area as “the Acela corridor media” — a reference to the Democratically controlled East Coast area of Washington, D.C., to New York, which he said is at an “obsessive” point on the indictment news.
“At town halls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the overwhelming number of questions revolve around the economy, inflation, China, the border and uniting our country. Indictments rarely, if ever, come up,” Burgum’s campaign spokesperson Lance Trover told The Hill.
As Trump campaigns to return to the White House, he’s used his various legal plights to paint a picture of a politically motivated government and pull support from other GOP candidates in the race — even fundraising off the indictments against him. Polling indicated Trump got a boost after his indictment in June.
“It’s definitely sucked all the oxygen out of the room. I think it’s gonna be very difficult for any other Republican candidate to break out under the current environment,” said Democratic strategist David Thomas, arguing candidates’ recent comments against the media “says a lot more about the lack of momentum” behind their campaigns.
Former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in an episode of the “Yes Labels” podcast last week that GOP candidates “need to start breaking through, desperately.”
“Boy, every time there’s an indictment, every time there’s big Trump news, it paralyzes this entire field when this entire field needs to start moving,” Stepien said.