Larry White, a self-described Republican conservative, was thinking of voting for Ron DeSantis in his party's presidential nominating contest, believing the Florida governor had a better chance of winning back the White House from the Democrats than former President Donald Trump.
Then came news on March 30 that Trump had been indicted in New York on charges related to a hush money payment to a porn star, making him the first former U.S. president to face criminal prosecution.
"Now I am absolutely voting for Trump," said White, 75, a composer and musician in Nevada. "The indictment was the last straw for me, because Trump has suffered so much political abuse. I think he's the strongest candidate to contest what the left is doing. I'm all in."
White's anger and return to supporting Trump over DeSantis reflected the sentiment of many Republican activists and voters Reuters spoke to in Nevada. The western state votes early in the presidential nominating process, giving it an outsized role in deciding which candidate gains momentum in the 2024 election.
Until the indictment, a majority of the 35 Republicans Reuters interviewed had been willing to turn their backs on Trump and go with a different candidate for the 2024 election, believing he was too flawed and bombastic to win the general election for Republicans next year.
The criminal charges in New York changed all that, upending the Republican primary contest and potentially giving Trump and his "Make America Great Again" movement a major boost in his quest to re-enter the White House. A trial is more than a year away, legal experts say, meaning that Trump may face a jury trial as he campaigns.
All 35 Republican activists and voters Reuters spoke to say they will be voting in the nominating contest to choose their 2024 White House candidate.
Every one of them decried the indictment as a meritless, politically motivated persecution of Trump. The charges against Trump are not yet clear, though legal analysts say he may be prosecuted for falsifying business records on charges of hiding the true nature of the payments.
Of the 35, 20 said they had been thinking of moving on from Trump and backing DeSantis. Of those, 14 said the indictment was changing their thinking and leading them back to supporting Trump again.
"I was really for Ron DeSantis," said Pepe Kahn, at a Republican club meeting in Henderson on Saturday. "I'm now more likely to support Trump than before. I think people who were more neutral than before will now go in to bat for him. This is the most frightening thing I've ever seen in the U.S."
STORMY DANIELS PAYMENT
Trump is expected to be arraigned, fingerprinted and photographed in a New York courthouse on Tuesday as he becomes the first former president to face criminal charges. An attorney for Trump said on Friday he will plead not guilty.
The indictment followed an investigation by a Manhattan grand jury, which heard evidence about a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels allegedly authorized by Trump in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she was paid to keep silent about a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied that this encounter took place; concealing payments such as this could potentially violate campaign finance laws.
The reaction to the indictment by congressional Republicans and even his potential Republican rivals for the White House nomination has demonstrated the firm grip that Trump still retains on the party, thanks to the die-hard support of a core group of voters.
Party leaders have rallied behind Trump. Even DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy but is expected to do so soon, called the indictment "un-American."
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, has conducted seven focus groups this year with people who voted for the businessman-turned-politician in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, to gauge how they feel about his candidacy this time round.
On Friday, a day after news of the indictment broke, all nine members of her latest focus group said they were going to vote for Trump over DeSantis in the Republican primary – the first time the ex-president has had universal backing in a focus group, Longwell said.
The reason was the indictment, Longwell added.
"People always feel defensive on his behalf," Longwell said. The question going forward, she said, was whether the outrage on Trump's behalf among Republican voters will endure throughout the primary and help him defeat DeSantis, or whether it will dissipate and be replaced by renewed concerns about his electability.
Longwell said there is no guarantee the charges will continue to help Trump in the long term, especially if he is indicted in other investigations he faces, including alleged election interference in Georgia and the mishandling of classified documents.
Trump's campaign boasted in an email to supporters on Sunday that it has raised over $4 million since the indictment was announced. Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, said in an email to Reuters that the charges had "surged" support for Trump.
"Americans from all backgrounds are sick and tired of the weaponization of the justice system against President Trump and his supporters," Cheung said.
A spokesperson for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.