Trump and Math
I don’t know, nobody does. However, I believe it is increasingly likely Donald Trump withdraws from the race for president as the result of a plea deal. Why? A: math.
Facing prosecutions in at least three jurisdictions, it’s likely, if he is not reelected, Trump will be tried, convicted, and sent to prison. I don’t believe this will happen, as a plea deal serves everyone’s interests. Trump and the prosecutors, I speculate, will settle for a lifetime ban on serving in public office in exchange for the resolution of criminal proceedings against him. As the political map comes into focus, a plea deal will emerge as the best outcome for Trump. And as the knock-on effects of imprisoning a former president become a reality, a deal will also become the best (or least bad) outcome for the nation.
President Trump is an obese 77-year-old male. Any sentence to a prison facility is likely a death sentence. Attorneys general wield the power of possible incarceration. Even more compelling? The prospect of survival — avoiding death behind bars. Incarceration, balanced against a life (post-deal) of golf clubs, sycophants, and porn stars weighs heavily on even the most delusional psyche.
How serious is the threat of prison? As I write this, President Trump has been indicted three times: in New York for tax and reporting violations related to hush money payments; in federal court in Miami for mishandling national security documents and obstructing the investigation into his conduct; and in federal court in D.C. for attempting to subvert the 2020 election. Later this month a fourth is expected, in Georgia, on charges of election tampering. But what is the risk he actually goes to jail? What sounds improbable looks more probable when we do the math.
Federal prosecutors rarely lose: In 2021, 94% of defendants charged with a federal felony were convicted. State and local prosecutors convict at high rates as well — the Atlanta office expected to indict Trump boasts a 90% conviction rate. Of those convicted by the feds, 74% received prison time. In cases for mishandling national security documents specifically, the DOJ regularly obtains multiyear prison sentences. And the documents case against the former president is notable for the weight of the evidence, including audio of him sharing military secrets he admits he hadn’t declassified, the sensitivity of the papers, and his blatant obstruction — offenses the DOJ and courts take very seriously.
It’s not any one case that cements Trump’s fate, but the compounding risk of several (indictments). Generally, defendants have a 3 in 10 chance of escaping an indictment without prison. A 30% chance of prevailing, four times in a row, is just under 1%.
This Is Different
OK, but Trump is not a typical defendant, and no case against him will be straightforward. He has unlimited resources and can deploy the full apparatus of a billionaire’s legal defense. In addition, there is a non-zero probability any jury will have a Trumper who refuses to convict. Also, prosecuting each case presents obstacles.
The New York case is generally regarded as weak, and while the Manhattan DA’s office is well resourced, it’s not the DOJ. As heavy as the federal documents case looks on paper, trying it will be a challenge — just working out the logistics of handling sensitive government secrets in the context of a public trial could take months of litigation and appeals. The election interference charges are complex and based on novel or rarely tested legal theories — there just isn’t a lot of precedent for the events of January 6. But the numbers remain stacked against Trump.
Still, let’s improve his odds of exoneration from 3 in 10 to 8 in 10 — only a 20% chance in each case that he’s convicted and sent to prison. The math is still ugly: 0.8⁴ = 0.41 which means Trump has only a 41% chance of escaping prison, even when given remarkably favorable, exceptional, odds. The most favorable math still lands him in prison.
Get Out of Jail Card(s)
There are two: 1) He retakes the White House, or 2) he (see above) reaches a plea deal.
The prison vaccine is Trump winning the presidency, or another GOP candidate winning and pardoning him. That resolves the federal charges — the greatest threats — and Trump likely believes he or some other Republican president could likely shut down the remaining prosecutions.
However, Trump’s political power is about to crash onto the rocks of electoral math. Barring a dramatic change in the GOP primary, which could happen, the likely outcome is the former president wins the nomination, then loses decisively to Biden in the general. Current signals suggest the Republican nominee will be Trump. The strongest would-be contender, Ron DeSantis, went from anti-woke warrior to brightening every room he leaves. He’s an awful candidate. In six months, DeSantis has plummeted from 34% to 15% in Republican primary polling, ceding his ground to the former president. Our very stable genius is now polling at 58%. In the past half-century, no candidate leading by 20 points at this stage has lost the nomination. Trump is up by 43.
But Trump’s favorable math across the primary is equally ugly in the general election. The media highlights national polls, favorable/unfavorable ratings, and other clickbait. But that’s not how we elect presidents. As we’re reminded every four years, we elect presidents by state.
Ninety percent of the states are foregone conclusions (Biden holds a 30-point lead in California; Trump, a 21-point lead in South Dakota). Pundits agree that only a handful of states will matter in 2024: UVA names Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Roll Call swaps Pennsylvania for Nevada. The Hill drops Nevada but adds Michigan and a wild card, North Carolina. And the Biden campaign itself appears to be focused on all of the above, minus North Carolina.
Demographics Are Destiny
Biden only needs to win three of these states to reclaim the White House: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And his odds look good, great even. He won all three in 2020, and since then things are trending even bluer. In Pennsylvania, the Democrats flipped a Senate seat in 2022, and in Michigan, they took full control of the state government. In Wisconsin, the GOP had a slight edge in the midterms, but Biden leads in every poll taken in the state this year. He also has the edge in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Trump’s prospects are tenuous in the other four. Biden carried Georgia in 2020 (as well as Arizona and Nevada), and in 2021 the Democrats flipped a Georgia Senate seat, then defended it 2022 (though they lost a House seat). North Carolina reflects how change is not good for Trump. He won the state in 2020 by a 1.3% margin. However, it’s a state in transition, a microcosm of the broader challenge faced by the GOP: The party’s base is older and whiter, and that population is giving way to a younger, more diverse, better-educated electorate — more likely to vote blue. In North Carolina, those effects are magnified by economic growth from new tech and finance jobs. Toyota, Apple, and other new employers are bringing in a younger, more educated workforce. In 2022, Democrats gained two House seats in North Carolina; the state’s delegation is now even at seven and seven. Similar trends are present in Arizona and Nevada, both states Biden won in 2020.
Nationwide, since Trump won the White House in 2016, 32 million young people have become eligible to vote, and 20 million elderly voters have died. That’s a 52 million voter swing from old to young. These younger citizens vote in greater numbers than previous younger generations, and they show no signs of becoming more conservative as they age.
We’re still a long way from November 2024, and a lot could happen — war is still raging in Europe, and Biden is 81. However, the most important factor in almost every presidential election, by far, is the economy. On that front, everything’s coming up Biden. GDP growth accelerated from 2% to 2.4% last quarter. Unemployment remains low (3.6%), and job growth continues to exceed expectations, with 372,000 new jobs created in June. Inflation fell to 3% in June, its lowest rate in two years. Contrast that with other nations, including France (4.5%), Germany (6.4%), and the U.K. (7.9%). More importantly for voter economics, U.S. wage growth is now outpacing inflation. Perceptions haven’t caught up with reality, but they will. If voters continue to vote on the economy, Trump loses badly.
The closer we get to a Trump loss in 2024, the more his currency for a plea deal diminishes. A loss would cement the notion that he has cost the party too much for too long. Traditional Republican leaders can’t wait to see the last of Trump, and his acolytes now have power bases of their own. Fox will abandon him, the cloud cover provided by Lindsay Graham, Kevin McCarthy, and other sycophants will disappear, and the pool of jurors who’d refuse to convict will shrink. He’ll also lose access to any backroom influence his political allies might bring to bear on the DOJ or state and local prosecutorial offices. His currency is a single token, his potential return to the Oval Office. And once that’s gone, so is his leverage.
Trump won’t like the deal, but the decision will be easier to make than many people think. He has no observable ideological commitment or loyalty to the Republican Party compelling him to run again. In the 2022 midterms, Trump amassed a war chest of $108 million and gave none to GOP candidates.
And he gives up all the time. His track record is quitting: from his six bankruptcies, including the Trump Taj Mahal Casino, to his innumerable abandoned projects, such as his defunct New Jersey Generals football team and the disgraced education for-profit Trump University. And people who know him, including his former chief of staff, John Kelly, and his former footstool, Chris Christie, say he has a real fear of going to jail.
In sum, Trump’s odds of landing in prison are perhaps 50/50 right now and likely to get worse as we approach the election.
Deal or No Deal?
Is there a deal to be had? It won’t be easy, but the array of prosecutors could work together to strike an agreement, for their own sake and the good of the nation. A coordinated negotiation between the DOJ, Georgia, and the Manhattan DA would be complex, but nothing precludes the effort. The alternative is worse: Trials would be a circus, convictions would be subject to years of appeals, and any ultimate incarceration would be a logistical nightmare. And when we step back from the details of these cases, what should the nation be seeking? Is it accountability? Or for the nation to move on? The answer is yes, and a plea deal achieves this.
There’s a broader lesson here. Our successes and failures are not a function of probability, but patterns. Our actions, like interest, compound. A kind act may go unnoticed, but kindness fosters enduring relationships and goodwill. Criminal acts may or may not result in punishment. But criminality screams for justice’s attention. And justice, while slow to act, is always listening.
Life is so rich,
P.P.S. If you’re an executive or department lead, join Section for a free event on Leading in the Age of AI, a primer on how every exec should be thinking about AI for their business.