Throughout American history, a number of political candidates have run campaigns after being indicted on criminal charges. Yet on March 30, 2023, former President Donald Trump became the first American President to formally join that list when a grand jury in New York indicted him on 34 counts of falsifying business records, specifically relating to a 2016 hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. His indictment quickly reshaped the dynamics of the Republican Primary, demonstrating his hold over it. In a matter of hours, his primary opponents, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and potential candidates such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) rallied around him to condemn the indictment as the country lurched into uncharted legal territory.
As the race currently stands, the former President is polling at around 58% with Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy both trailing at 1%, and “anti-Trumper” former Governor Asa Hutchinson also at 1%. Prominent potential candidate Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is the second-place challenger polling at 21%, 37 points behind the former President. Even with this unprecedented foray into uncharted legal territory, as a number of polls have suggested, the indictment has benefited the former President, though whether it is purely a distraction or setting the tone for the race to come is yet to be seen.
Former President Trump, the frontrunner, formally declared his campaign unusually early on November 15, 2022. This kicked off a strangely quiet primary season, as his first formal campaign stops were not until late January 2023 in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Notably, these two stops were nothing like the infamous rallies of his previous two campaigns. Rather, they were smaller, traditional-styled stops one would expect of a more orthodox candidate with little fanfare.
Two months later, he made a splash at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), making headlines by stating, "in 2016, I declared, 'I am your voice.' Today I add: I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution!" This rhetoric was primarily viewed as a return to the self-centered grievance campaign he ran in 2020. Yet Trump’s indictment gave a dreadfully mundane campaign the wind in its sails and the pep back in its step virtually overnight. Accordingly, the former President — in a more traditional “Trump” style — reinvigorated his supporters in a statement that shifted blame to the Democratic Party, claiming that Manhattan District Attorney Bragg was "doing Joe Biden's dirty work." He continued this rhetoric, asserting that the Democratic Party created a “witch hunt” and a “fake case” to interfere with his third run for the presidency. This rhetoric has profoundly energized his base, raising over seven million dollars since the indictment announcement, but provided a conundrum for his opponents.
Summarized by a Republican operative close to the former President’s campaign, “before this indictment it was already tough for any Republican to attack Trump,” because “for the last five years voters were under the belief that if you attack Trump you’re a RINO or establishment Republican.” However, he continued saying that after the indictment, “that got even harder. You’re attacking him while Democrats are going after Trump in New York — how does that not make you look allied with the people who are trying to take him down?” It is precisely this question which Republican challengers to Trump must answer: how do one compete against a frontrunner that 85% of frequent Republican voters believe is subject to a “witch hunt?”
As the second candidate to formally enter the race, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has centered her messaging around calling for a new generation of leaders within the party. She is also known for continually changing her stance on the former President. Yet, after his indictment, Haley came to his defense in a Fox News interview, saying the Manhattan District Attorney was following through with this for “political points” and describing the investigation as a “political prosecution” that is “more about revenge than it is justice.” However, she also made an effort to distance herself from the matter, conveying her opinion that “the country would be better off talking about things that the American public cares about.''
At 37, Vivek Ramaswamy is the youngest candidate to formally enter the race. He has never held elected office before and is an “anti-woke” conservative entrepreneur who describes himself as a leader of the conservative culture wars. His platform revolves around being an outsider and a fresh face in politics. In the days following the indictment announcement, he quickly began defending the former President, appearing on Fox News to call it “un-American” for the ruling party to “arrest its political rivals,” warning that “if they can do it to Trump, they can do it to you.” Ramaswamy’s rhetoric has shown that he is stuck in the awkward position of balancing a defense of the former President while simultaneously attempting to prove that he is the better candidate.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson made his campaign official on April 2, 2023, becoming the only candidate to publicly call for the former President to drop out of the race due to the indictment. In an ABC interview announcement, he claimed voters he talks to are asking “tough questions” that are not about “the political dynamics of Trump.” Though notably, the former Governor is not a moderate, which leads to questions about the viability of his candidacy in a general election, and, more importantly, if an “anti-Trump lane” will open up as a realistic path to the nomination.
The Florida Governor is a candidate in everything but name. He is currently embarking on national book tours to battleground and early-voting states, as well as building up his repertoire of, as he likes to call it, “points on the board” in Florida. However, he is unable to formally declare his intentions to run until the Florida legislative session ends in May 2023, as Florida law requires him to resign as governor to run. The Governor is making his mark by riding off the wave of support he’s enjoyed since his November 2022 midterm reelection, when he was comfortably reelected by around a 20-point landslide — the largest Republican win of the night. This entrenched, yet slipping, support helps explain the Governor’s strength, and why he opted to use his position to make his stance on the former President's indictment clear.
“The Soros-backed Manhattan District Attorney has consistently bent the law to downgrade felonies and to excuse criminal misconduct. Yet, now he is stretching the law to target a political opponent,” Governor DeSantis tweeted from his government account, adding that Florida would not assist in an extradition request “given the questionable circumstances.” Though strategically lost in the initial news blitz following the indictment, the Florida Legislature quietly introduced legislation rolling back the aforementioned state requirement that the Governor resigns before running for federal office, clearing the last formal hurdle for a DeSantis campaign.