It’s an article of faith with Donald Trump and much of the right that virtually every legal development in his four indictments is part of a vast conspiracy. It’s the “weaponization” of the government, despite a distinct lack of evidence for such claims.
So when a federal judge this week set a trial date for Trump in the heart of the 2024 presidential nominating calendar — March 4, a day before 15 states vote on Super Tuesday — the talking points were predictable. Trump, who faces charges of conspiring to subvert the 2020 election in this case, called the scheduling election interference, and Republicans were happy to echo that.
But if a judge were actually seeking to influence the primaries, March 4 would not seem to be ideal timing.
The New York Times is out with an article looking at how Trump, the far-and-away front-runner for the GOP nomination, might actually have the nomination sewn up by the time we learn whether he’s a felon — or even really get to the meat of his first criminal trial. Republicans set their delegate rules in 2020 to preclude a primary challenge to the incumbent, then Trump, and to this day, they benefit the man who has effectively taken on incumbent status in this race, too.
To the extent Trump’s nomination would be in jeopardy, it would probably require the contest to turn into a delegate battle. (Think of the prolonged 2016 Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.) Trump is so far ahead right now — by about 35 points nationally — that it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t at least be a major contender by the time his trial date and Super Tuesday roll around.
(Trump’s hush-money criminal trial in New York is scheduled for March 25, but there’s a good chance that could be pushed back to make way for the federal trial. His federal classified-documents case is set for May 20, when only a handful of states’ primaries will remain. We don’t yet have a trial date for Trump’s newest indictment in Fulton County, Ga.)
So what happens at that point? We did some delegate math, and we can say a few things:
1. Seven states are likely to hold contests before the March 4 trial date (not all states have finalized their dates). While some of those states are often crucial in distilling the field and effectively crowning a front-runner, they account for fewer than 10 percent of pledged delegates (those bound to vote for a particular candidate). That means even if the judge holds to the March 4 trial date, roughly 90 percent of delegates would be up for grabs as Trump goes to trial.
2. However, things could begin slowly with jury selection. By the next night, after 15 states vote on Super Tuesday, nearly half of pledged delegates will have been allocated.
3. Prosecutors and Trump’s legal team have both estimated it will take four to six weeks to present each of their cases — and those are conservative estimates. That would put a verdict in late April or early May at the absolute earliest — and potentially after the primary season altogether, if each takes six or more weeks and jury deliberations are prolonged.
4. Even if the whole trial wound up on the shorter end of the range — four weeks for each side and speedy deliberations — more than two-thirds of delegates would be at stake during the trial. (More than 30 states are set to vote between early March and late April.) Including the earliest states, 75 percent of delegates would probably be allocated before the case went to the defense, and 80 percent or more could be allocated by the time the trial is over.
5. Several states holding contests later in that window are “winner take all.” That means Trump could claim all of their more than 400 delegates if he’s still the clear national front-runner. Those delegates alone could account for one-third of the total delegates Trump needs.
6. Almost all other states in that window have “winner take most” (also known as hybrid) formats, rather than the more proportional systems that the early states have. This could allow Trump to win a huge chunk of the those delegates as well.
7. None of this accounts for states that could move up in the nominating process. For example, a handful of states are set to hold contests on June 4, which doesn’t comply with Republican National Committee rules requiring them to be at least 45 days before the start of the GOP convention on July 15.
(As always, for the latest on the GOP nominating calendar, Frontloading HQ is a great resource.)
It’s certainly possible that holding the trial at this juncture could hurt Trump. Voters in 30 states heading to the polls as Trump is confronting criminal charges in court could influence their decisions, if the prospect of voting for a soon-to-be-felon suddenly comes into focus for them.
But there is ample evidence that, shy of a guilty verdict, this just doesn’t really move the needle. If anything, the charges have bolstered Trump’s standing in the GOP primary; his share of support improved markedly after his first indictment in late March, and his lead has grown through his three other indictments, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has faded and no other candidates have made significant moves.
Polls have shown about half of Republicans say they wouldn’t vote for a convicted Trump. But whether they’d hold to that is another matter. Polls delving more deeply into the issue have suggested that many people could dismiss any potential crimes as not “serious” enough to have an impact on their votes.
And by the time they actually have to make that decision, it’s quite possible the contest will be over.