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Trump heads to the witness stand as new polls show him leaping past Biden in key swing states

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — A year away from Election Day 2024, former President Donald Trump is set to testify in a civil fraud trial and separately faces more than 90 criminal charges, setting up the possibility that a convicted felon tops the Republican ticket next November.

But it’s President Joe Biden’s political prospects that are plunging.

In another extraordinary twist to a 2024 campaign season that is more notable for court hearings than treks through early voting states, Trump is expected to be called to the witness stand in New York on Monday. This is hardly typical activity during a post-presidency. But Trump was, after all, the most unconventional president.

Biden, meanwhile, is absorbing brutal new polls showing him losing to GOP front-runner Trump in multiple key swing states. The numbers will likely ignite panic among Democrats and renew doubts among Americans that the soon-to-be-81-year-old is up to a full second term. If the New York Times/Siena College survey is borne out in 2024, there would be no electoral path to victory for Biden. And an increasingly authoritarian Trump – who is promising a second term of “retribution” – could pull off a White House comeback in spite of sparking a Capitol insurrection with his false claims of electoral fraud in 2020.

“I was concerned before these polls, and I’m concerned now,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“These presidential races over the last couple of terms have been very tight. No one is going to have a runaway election here. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, concentration, resources. And so we have our work cut out for us.”

The coinciding crises facing both Trump and Biden belie the fact that, for all their deficiencies, neither is yet to face a serious challenger from within their parties as they seek the nomination.

Biden’s position is weakening as he tackles cascading global threats such as the war in the Middle East, sheds support over his handling of the economy and sees cracks in the multiracial coalition that first elected him. It also reflects a nation that is divided and disconsolate, and groping for the elusive normality that the president promised three years ago after the pandemic and the historic turbulence of the Trump administration.

The poll is also sure to renew the question of whether Biden is right to insist on running again, although some Democrats argue the time to coalesce around a different candidate may have already passed.

“It’s very late to change horses,” David Axelrod, a former senior strategist for President Barack Obama and a CNN senior political analyst, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. Axelrod said that Biden had defied conventional wisdom before but that the latest polls would send “tremors of doubt thru the party.”

Trump’s strength in the New York Times polls and other surveys will meanwhile trigger anxiety around the world as realization dawns that a second Trump term could shatter the post-World War II system of Western alliances and effectively hand Ukraine to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Polls in the modern era are rarely a failsafe predictor this far out from an election and provide only a snapshot. Multiple events that will shape the 2024 race are yet to take place.

Biden supporters argue that his critics and media narratives set by the president’s low polls badly miss the most salient point that will define the 2024 election. Once the binary choice between Biden and Trump becomes clear, they say, the electorate will inevitably side with a president whose warnings in the midterms last year that Republicans could crush US democracy were far more successful than pundits expected.

And the economy – which is strong fundamentally in terms of jobs and growth – could turn more in Biden’s favor in the next 12 months with all eyes on high prices and interest rates.

The impact of third-party candidates on the election and the way in which a chaotic House GOP could shape voter sentiment are also unknown factors.

And while Trump’s devoted followers have bought into his claims that his criminal peril is all political persecution by the Biden administration, there is no precedent for the staggering prospect of an ex-president and potential nominee on trial in an election year.

The New York Times/Siena College poll finds that around 6% of voters across Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin say they would switch their votes from Trump to Biden if the former president is convicted and sentenced. Given the tiny margins in these swing states in 2020 and expectations of a similarly tight race next year, such a shift could decide the election.

Trump takes the stand

The biggest test yet of Trump’s strategy of turning his criminal peril into electoral advantage will unfold in a New York courtroom on Monday.

Americans simply are not used to the idea of their former leaders going under oath on the witness stand. It’s a scenario more familiar in fragile developing states abroad rather than in the world’s most powerful democracy. Because this is a civil trial, Trump has no criminal liability. But the judge has already ruled that Trump, his adult sons and the Trump Organization committed “persistent and repeated” fraud. Now the judge is considering a claim by New York Attorney General Letitia James for $250 million and a ban on Trump doing business in the state where he made his name.

While the trial is not televised, Trump has characteristically sought to turn his appearances in court into an all-consuming drama with his rants outside the courtroom about unfairness and his searing attacks on James, the judge and courtroom staff that have raised fears for their safety. The ex-president is seeking to destroy the credibility of the court system that seeks to hold him to account. His strategy shows that he remains even more of a threat to America’s democratic system than he was when he stormed out of Washington after failing to thwart Biden’s election victory.

Testifying under oath is a tricky business for an ex-president renowned for making false claims. The law offers less impunity than he enjoys in spouting falsehoods on the campaign trail. Still, Trump is also defending his cherished business, his legacy and his family’s future. Temidayo Aganga-Williams, former senior investigative counsel of the House January 6 committee, says that the ex-president’s demeanor might depend on how his legal team think the case is going.

“We’ve seen the Donald Trump of the rallies, who is boisterous, who is offensive, who is aggressive, and then we’ve seen a Donald Trump, in deposition testimony, who was a little bit actually more controlled, about his words, who gets a little slightly more soft-spoken,” Aganga-Williams told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on Friday. “If they think all is lost, they may decide to go in a more aggressive, public-facing strategy, where it’s not about what’s happening with the verdict.”

Trump’s defenses in his areas of criminal liability have morphed with an campaign strategy founded on his repeated and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The ex-president is facing a federal trial beginning March in Washington arising from his attempt to overturn the election in 2020. He and associates have also been indicted in Fulton County, Georgia, on racketeering charges related to the election. Trump was also indicted by special counsel Jack Smith for the alleged mishandling of classified documents he kept at his Florida resort after leaving office. And he’s facing trial over his first criminal indictment in a New York case arising out of a hush-money payment to an adult-film star.

But according to Trump, this is all a new bout of election interference ahead of 2024. He warned in a fundraising email to supporters Sunday, exactly a year from Election Day, that if Biden and the Democrats win, “This will go on forever and ever – and America will NEVER have a genuine election again.”

Biden is slipping deeper into the political mire

Given that the likely Republican presidential nominee faces potential conviction, after having served a single term in the White House that was capped off with a second impeachment over his involvement in an insurrection, the question for Biden ought to be: Why is the nascent 2024 race even close?

The poll from The New York Times and Siena College suggests Trump has created an edge over Biden on the economy, immigration, national security and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden, however, is trusted more on abortion – a potential driver for Democratic turnout and a problem for the GOP in 2024.

In Nevada, which Biden narrowly won in 2020, Trump leads 52% to Biden’s 41%. Trump leads in Georgia, a state where he is facing racketeering charges, 49% to Biden’s 43%. The ex-president up 49% to 44% in Arizona, another key state. In Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 and Biden won in 2020, the Republican is up 5 points.

The poll shows Biden weakening among Black and Hispanic voters. And 71% of those polled said he was too old to be an effective president, while only 39% said the same of Trump – who is 77.

Spencer Weiss, a Pennsylvania voter quoted by The Times who backed Biden in 2020 but now supports Trump, said: “The world is falling apart under Biden.” He added: “I would much rather see somebody that I feel can be a positive role-model leader for the country. But at least I think Trump has his wits about him.”

The Biden campaign scoffed at polls a year ahead of the election and argued that “our winning, popular agenda” would win out over “MAGA Republicans’ unpopular extremism.” But there were real signs of anxiety among Democrats on Sunday.

In addition to Blumenthal, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, warned that Biden was suffering over his staunch support for Israel despite its relentless pounding of Gaza after the Hamas terror attacks on October 7. The Washington state lawmaker told Jen Psaki on MSNBC that for the “first time” she thought Biden’s reelection hopes were “in great trouble” because “Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, but also young people, see this conflict as a moral conflict and a moral crisis.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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