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But how could it alter the battle for control of Congress?
On Thursday, Business Insider released a poll that seemed to sum up the conventional wisdom. Asked whether launching a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rival Joe Biden would “work out in Democrats’ favor electorally,” 43 percent of respondents said it “probably” or “definitely” would not. Only 32 percent said it probably or definitely would.
Pundits and partisans have been making the same prediction since the start of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in 2017. The American people don’t like impeachment. Congressional Republicans suffered when they impeached Bill Clinton. Ergo, Congressional Democrats will suffer if they impeach Trump.
For months, this had been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s rationale for resisting. Yes, the Democratic Party flipped 41 House seats in 2018, enough to regain control of the chamber. But those gains mean that in 2020, dozens of her members will be defending closely divided or even Republican-leaning districts, including 31 that Trump won in 2016. Without a significant shift in public sentiment, the thinking went, initiating an impeachment process likely to end with the GOP-controlled Senate refusing to convict Trump would only imperil those members — and the party’s 17-seat majority.
Then Ukraine happened, and Pelosi’s stance changed — as did the stances of dozens of vulnerable House Democrats.
Has the electoral calculus changed as well?
The short answer is that it didn’t have to; Democrats’ fears were probably overblown to begin with. What all the anxious analysis seems to have overlooked is that not all impeachments are created equal. Some come to be seen as partisan. Others come to be seen as justified.
Pelosi’s pre-Ukraine worry was that pursuing Trump’s impeachment would come to be seen as partisan. In today’s hyperpolarized context, it still could. But even then, the historical record suggests that partisan impeachments don’t inevitably lead to significant congressional losses for the party that pursued them.
Recall the Clinton impeachment. Much has been made of the fact that in November 1998, a month after the GOP majority first voted to authorize the impeachment inquiry, Democrats flipped five seats in the House — the first time since 1834 that a president’s party gained House seats in the sixth year of his term. The narrative has long been that Dems were boosted by backlash to impeachment.
But as the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein recently pointed out, they didn’t actually get much of a boost. Summing up the total vote for all House races, Republicans received a majority. They kept control of the House. Just 17 seats in total changed hands between the parties, at that time the smallest midterm shift ever. Then, two years later, the same thing happened again: Republicans won the popular vote and preserved their narrow majority. Democrats netted just a single seat. “A ringing endorsement of the political status quo,” concluded one political scientist.
And the Democrats have other advantages going into 2020. The congressional math back then was far friendlier to Democrats than today’s congressional math is to Republicans. Clinton’s job approval rating hovered in the mid-60s; Trump is mired in the low 40s. And while only 31 House Democrats are set to defend Trump districts next year, 91 Republicans were running for reelection in districts Clinton won in 1996. Over two election cycles, voters ousted just seven of them.
In other words, Democrats had a much more popular president on their team and a much bigger pool of vulnerable Republicans to target — and they still failed to flip the House. Even if Trump’s impeachment turns out to be as unpopular as Clinton’s — a strictly partisan spectacle, in the eyes of the public — there’s little reason to assume Democrats will suffer devastating electoral consequences as a result.
And that’s a big if.
It’s entirely possible that the public, or at least the persuadable part of it, comes to see the Trump impeachment inquiry as justified rather than partisan. There’s some evidence, in fact, that this may be happening already.
After opposing impeachment at roughly Clinton-era levels for the bulk of the Russia investigation, voters seem to be softening their stance in light of the latest revelations about Ukraine. According to the Business Insider poll, a majority (53 percent) now back the launch of an impeachment inquiry; a near-majority (49 percent) told Marist the same thing. A Morning Consult survey released Thursday found that, since last weekend, overall support for impeachment has risen 7 points while opposition has fallen by 6 points; among independents, the swing was even larger (15 net points). And just 33 percent of respondents told the Business Insider pollsters that they were “extremely” or “very” familiar with the Ukraine situation — meaning that public opinion still has a lot of room to evolve.
Imagine that, driven by further revelations, investigations, reporting and hearings, public opinion continues to evolve in the direction it’s been evolving so far. Imagine that, over time, impeachment looks more justified, not less. For that, we have only one modern-day precedent: the Richard Nixon impeachment saga.
The differences between now and then are obvious. Again, partisanship is much more potent now; voters are a lot less moveable. Nixon had just won reelection; Trump intends to be the ballot next November. Back then, a global oil crisis was triggering a recession; today, unemployment is low and the economy seems strong.
Still, Democrats didn’t face a backlash in November 1974 for forcing Nixon to resign under the threat of impeachment. Much the opposite, in fact: They flipped four seats in the Senate, 49 seats in the House and four governor’s mansions.
Why? Because the public came to see Nixon’s impeachment as justified. In the beginning, only 19 percent of Americans said Nixon should be removed from office. By the end, 57 percent were onboard.
To put that in perspective, Business Insider asked whether someone who did what the Ukraine whistleblower has accused Trump of doing — that is, “encourage[ing] a foreign power to intervene in an upcoming domestic election in their favor” — should be investigated and possibly removed from office.
Forty-nine percent said yes. And this is just the beginning.
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