The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, half the country doesn’t oppose charging Trump with a crime

That doesn’t mean that half does

Pro-Trump influencer Brandon Straka sits in a simulated jail cell during a demonstration at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Aug. 5 in Dallas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

One of the side effects of living in a polarized political climate is the description of “half the country” doing something or other. “Half the country supported Donald Trump” is a common refrain, a bit of rhetoric that jumps from “Trump didn’t lose that badly” to “the 2020 results were about 50-50” to “the election results reflect the views of the country broadly.” What might accurately be described as an election in which an unpopular president viewed negatively by most American adults was rejected by more than half of those who cast ballots suddenly becomes a toss-up.

The utility of this is pretty obvious. There’s a difference between saying that you’re representing the will of a minority segment of the American population and saying you’re representing half of it. This is a democracy, after all, so claiming to speak for half of the country’s residents carries more weight than saying you’re speaking for those whose position has already been measured in an electoral contest and rejected.

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A lot of supporters of Donald Trump, of course, believe that they represent a majority. They believe that he speaks for most Americans, including those whose voices aren’t otherwise heard. His is a “silent” majority, both he and they have claimed, which is a bit like the political version of a high-schooler’s Canadian girlfriend. If your majority is not heard in polling or at the polls, it’s silent in a way that is both unmeasurable and unhelpful.

Of course, many Americans don’t know anyone who voted for the other candidate in 2020, making it much easier to assume that the candidate they opposed has less support than it might seem. All of this almost certainly contributes to the willingness of Trump supporters to believe the election was stolen, which it wasn’t.

Over the past week or two, the idea that “half the country” wants something has cropped up in a different context: how broadly Americans think Trump should be held accountable for his post-election behavior.

The immediate trigger for this is the sudden revelation from the Justice Department that it is focused on this precise subject: The search of Mar-a-Lago last week made concrete reports that Trump’s handling of documents was being scrutinized. Views of the search quickly polarized — and quickly spilled over into consideration of the risks posed by the government taking the unusual step of investigating a former president. The Justice Department was taking quite a political risk, some argued, given that half the country would object to a Trump indictment.

We have polling that assesses this question, at least in one particular context. Over the past few months, pollsters have repeatedly asked Americans whether they support the filing of criminal charges against Trump in relation to the Capitol riot. In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority supported the filing of charges. In July, an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found that 50 percent of adults did. Then, at the beginning of the month, a YouGov-Economist poll determined that a plurality of adults supported the idea.

Those results differ for a few reasons: different questions, different timing, different universes of respondents. The takeaway is the same: More people support charges than oppose them, if not overwhelmingly. In only the Marist poll was anything close to half the country opposed to the idea.

But this raises an interesting point, one pointed out by the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie on Wednesday. When we talk about what half of the country does in the context of politics, we have to layer on all sorts of qualifiers.

For example, more than a fifth of the country is not included in these polls because they are younger than 18. The Democrat-Republican bifurcation is itself misleading as an estimation of segments of the population, because a plurality of adults identify as independents. Overlapping “Republican” with “Trump voter” carries its own risks; analysis from Pew Research Center determined that more than a quarter of Trump’s 2020 votes came from independents, as did 30 percent of Joe Biden’s.

The population, then, isn’t simply a red-blue split right down the middle. Instead, it looks something like this.

If we break out the polling on criminal charges by party and 2020 vote, we see more complexity. Most Democrats support filing charges and most Republicans oppose — but those sentiments are not universal. In each of the three polls, we see that about 6 percent of Trump voters think he should be criminally charged, about 4.4 million Americans.

In the Marist and YouGov polls, there’s an interesting added dimension. Democrats are less likely to think Trump will face charges than they are to support the idea. The same holds for Americans overall. But among Republicans, there’s a higher expectation that charges will be filed than there is support for it happening.

What happens if we overlap views of filing charges (from the recent YouGov poll) with the distribution of partisanship? A picture much like the one approximating what happened in 2020.

Centering the question on parties, though, obscures the results. So let’s center it instead on support or opposition to potential charges. Now we see a different — but still complex — picture.

Half the country doesn’t oppose charges, but, here, half doesn’t support charges, either. We can read this lots of ways — only 4 in 10 Americans actively object to filing charges! — but, again, it’s complex. We can estimate that 3 percent of American adults are Republicans who support filing charges. Seventeen percent of adults are Democrats or independents who oppose filing charges — but 41 percent of adults are non-Republicans who think an indictment should be made.

Talking about the country as two big groups is useful. In many contexts, it’s generally accurate. But we should be wary about the difference between using that framing as a shorthand and using it to create a sense of equivalence.

Or of threat. Much of the subtext to the Justice Department’s decision is that criminal charges would yield a backlash far worse than the threats seen since the Mar-a-Lago search. If we assume that half the country would be infuriated, the risk of filing charges seems far more dangerous — something that many allies of Trump’s readily suggest.

There is a risk, certainly. But if the Justice Department were to charge Trump with a crime in connection with Jan. 6, we can estimate that about 17 percent* of the over-18 population are Republican Trump voters who oppose that action — about 1 in 6 adults. Another 7 percent are Trump-voting independents.

That is a lot of people from which threatening actors might emerge. It is not, however, half of the country.

* The math, for those curious: About 74 million people voted for Trump, 70 percent of them Republican. That’s about 52 million, of whom 85 percent oppose charges — 44.2 million. That’s about 17 percent of the total population of 258 million adults.