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Do Democrats Have An Impeachment Problem?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In an interview with the Washington Post published Monday, House speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke out against impeaching President Trump, saying “he’s just not worth it.” This wasn’t a dramatic departure from what Pelosi has said previously (she’s long been wary of impeachment), but it is her most explicit stance yet.

So why did Pelosi come out against impeachment so emphatically, when a meaningful share of the party wants to keep the option open? Do Democrats have an impeachment problem?

From ABC News:

Nancy Pelosi on Trump impeachment: ‘He’s just not worth it’

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I took her comments as acknowledging the obvious: 1) Trump can only be removed from office if at least 20 Republican senators vote for it. 2) Impeachment is not popular with the public, only with other Democrats. Pelosi has a strategy — Trump will be removed from office in January 2021 without impeachment proceedings if Democrats are effective over the next two years.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Right. Impeachment can be a very long and drawn-out process — there’s a good chance that even if it started tomorrow, it wouldn’t be resolved by November 2020.

So it’s arguably faster, and certainly easier, to remove Trump via the ballot box.

And impeachment might complicate that effort.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): In today’s politics, Democrats and Republicans usually vote overwhelmingly for their party’s nominee in presidential elections. So any deterioration in support among your party — or improvement — could really make a difference, which means Democrats pursuing impeachment could give Trump just what he needs to ensure that Republicans are unified behind him in 2020.

perry: I disagree. Republicans are already behind Trump, and will continue to be — whether or not there’s a movement to impeach him.

sarahf: But Perry, didn’t we see start to see a crack in Republican support of Trump (at least in the Senate) when some politicians opposed his declaration of a national emergency to secure funding for a barrier along the U.S-Mexico border? The Senate still has to vote, but they’re widely expected to vote against his declaration, setting Trump up to issue his first veto.

perry: We are talking about voters, right? Trump has very strong support among Republican voters. And his national emergency declaration is strongly supported among Republican voters.

Plus, Trump is already arguing that Democrats are going too far in their investigations of him — so I think that will be a big theme of his campaign, impeachment or not.

nrakich: Trump is one of the most popular presidents among his own party in modern times. So I agree with Perry, although Geoffrey isn’t necessarily wrong — independents might be turned off by impeachment. Independents are the reason Trump’s approval is as low as it is.

perry: Right, and independents don’t support impeachment.

geoffrey.skelley: To me, it’s about the independents who are really Republicans. They approve of the president at a lower rate, though they still strongly approve of him. So starting impeachment proceedings seems like a good way for Democrats to alienate these voters and increase their support of Trump. Trump can shout from the rooftops about fake news and the partisan witch hunt, but if the Democrats were to try and impeach him, it would almost surely help him win soft GOP support.

nrakich: One theory is that Trump’s approval among Republicans is so high only because anti-Trump Republicans have stopped identifying as Republicans.

geoffrey.skelley: Not to mention, an impeachment effort would swallow up almost all of the media coverage. So even if House Democrats want to focus on other issues that could be politically advantageous, there would still be one overarching topic each day for months: impeachment.

perry: But I thought some of Pelosi’s arguments were weak: The Senate won’t vote for impeachment — OK, but I’m not sure that really matters, at least constitutionally. She also said Trump is “just not worth” impeaching. What does that even mean?

I’d say there is actually a pretty strong case that Trump has exploited his office for financial gain, obstructed justice and violated campaign finance law, and so there is an argument for impeachment on these grounds. And if Pelosi agrees that Trump has done much of what he is accused of, I think she will have a hard time making her anti-impeachment argument stick.

And it’s not just the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faction that will challenge her. More senior Democrats, like John Yarmuth and Al Green, already disagree with her stance.

nrakich: Some of their arguments are silly, though. Particularly this idea that impeachment should be based on some sort of legal standard and not politics. The Constitution doesn’t set out a legal standard, and as we’ve written many times, impeachment is inherently a political process!

geoffrey.skelley: But I think weighing the importance of the Senate vote makes sense for Pelosi and Democrats, especially since impeachment is basically dead on arrival in the Senate.

nrakich: Does anyone want to make the case that Democrats will face a problem with their base if they don’t move to impeach Trump? Polls have found that a wide majority of Democrats support it.

perry: I don’t think left-leaning voters will stay home in November 2020 because the Democrats didn’t impeach Trump.

nrakich: My thoughts exactly, Perry. With issues that enjoy broad support (as impeachment does among Democrats), it’s a question of how important the issue is to Democratic voters. And I’m just not sure it is that important to Democrats that Trump be impeached — especially when there’s the argument that your party can beat him at the ballot box in a year and a half anyway.

geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel raises a key point — while Democrats say they favor impeachment, they don’t really prioritize it that much. A January survey found Democrats ranked impeaching Trump as the 14th-most important issue for the new Congress, far behind other issues like combating climate change and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

sarahf: But by coming out so emphatically against impeachment, Pelosi has offered herself up as a convenient scapegoat for House Democrats who disagree with her stance, which I think was a smart move politically.

perry: Oh, interesting. You think it’s so everyone can bash her and she is taking one for the team?

sarahf: Well, my thought is by taking a middle-of-the-road approach here, she gives more vocal members of the party like, say, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the room to call for Trump’s impeachment without the narrative becoming that the Democratic Party wants to impeach Trump.

Then again, her stance may seem premature considering the long-awaited Mueller report hasn’t yet dropped. But she also didn’t rule out impeachment entirely. She just made it clear that it would have to be a bipartisan effort.

nrakich: Yeah, the Mueller report could change the calculus. Not every poll finds that impeachment lacks public support. In fact, it’s downright popular if the condition is that Mueller found that Trump did something wrong.

The Washington Post/Schar School found that if the Mueller report finds that Trump obstructed justice, Americans would support impeachment 65 percent to 29 percent. That includes 68 percent of independents.

And YouGov/The Economist found that Americans would support impeachment by a lesser, but still healthy, margin — 47 percent to 31 percent — if Mueller finds Trump obstructed justice. Among independents, it’s 38 percent to 31 percent.

perry: But Nathaniel, once Trump dubs the obstruction charge “fake news” and Fox News rallies around that idea, wouldn’t the 40 percent of people who seem to support Trump no matter what keep on supporting him? Don’t you think these polls will change (favorably towards Trump)?

nrakich: That 65-29 split in the Washington Post poll is probably too good to be true for progressives. But I do buy the notion that impeachment could go from generally unpopular to generally popular if Mueller’s report is bad enough for Trump.

geoffrey.skelley: Keep in mind though that positions backed by Trump have often still made gains when they were unpopular overall. For instance, support for his border wall remains largely unpopular, but more Republicans have rallied to the cause, making it more popular than it was. So I’m not sure we’d necessarily see a big shift in who supports impeachment.

perry: I am fully on the “Trump must be taped telling Putin to hack John Podesta’s emails to be removed from office” train. And what I think Pelosi is saying is that at least a dozen GOP senators must be ready to impeach Trump — something close to the 20 required — for her to take action. That would require a majority of Republican voters to want the same — and I think for that to happen Mueller would need to find really clear evidence that Trump personally and directly worked with the Russians, not just obstructed justice.

sarahf: That’s the big if. Mueller’s report has to contain a bombshell in order for this to happen. And that’s because the investigation is already being viewed through an increasingly partisan lens.

nrakich: Oh, I doubt Trump will ever be removed from office. But I don’t think Pelosi necessarily needs to have whipped 20 Republican senators before she will let impeachment proceedings begin.

perry: But that is what she is implying right? That impeachment must be bipartisan?

nrakich: Sure, right now. You don’t think a bad Mueller report might change that?

I’m imagining a scenario where Trump is so toxic that it could be good for the House to be on the record as having said, “This is unacceptable.” And then maybe you force some Senate Republicans to make tough votes that can be used to tie them to Trump.

sarahf: Only if Pelosi thinks she has the votes to win. Her stance reflects that she cares deeply about the optics of the situation.

geoffrey.skelley: Agreed, Sarah. I think she’s inclined to only pursue things if she thinks victory is possible. Victory in this case meaning there’s a substantial chance Trump is removed from office.

nrakich: See, I dunno. I think there’s a way for Pelosi to “win” (politically) by making Republicans consciously keep a toxic president in office.

sarahf: Do you think part of Pelosi’s aversion to impeachment is based on her experience of being in Congress when former House speaker Newt Gingrich led the charge for Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the ’90s?

perry: I do. And the fact that some liberals wanted to impeach Bush in 2006, but they held off and then went on to win the presidency in 2008.

nrakich: Yeah, plus the probably-inescapable reality that if Democrats impeach Trump now, the next Democratic president will almost certainly be impeached by the next Republican House, and then impeachment will just become another partisan tool — another norm thrown to the wind.

perry: But I think Pelosi is wrong. The Republicans may have lost seats in the House in 1998 (as they investigated President Bill Clinton in a process that led to impeachment), but they kept control of the chamber. And they won the presidency in 2000. I generally think she is a bit stuck in the past — from an era where swing voters existed in large numbers. I don’t know whether anyone’s vote would change because of impeachment proceedings, and that’s because I don’t think many people are undecided about Trump.

geoffrey.skelley: That’s right, Perry. Few are undecided on Trump, but it’s possible that opinions could shift depending on which Democrat he’s up against in 2020.

Think of the people who somewhat disapprove of Trump — there aren’t a ton of them, but if some of them move back toward him, that might be all he needs to win re-election. He already won once while losing the popular vote.

sarahf: So it sounds as if we don’t fully understand Pelosi’s political calculus. It’s not like this was a new stance for her. She’s long been skeptical of impeachment, so I guess the better question is why take this stance now?

geoffrey.skelley: Getting out in front of the issue before the Mueller report drops? Assuming it’s released sooner rather than later.

perry: I wrote a piece last fall saying that the Democratic Party leadership was fairly anti-impeachment. Pelosi’s comments were not surprising to me or really that new — except she actually declared, “This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now,” and was more forceful than she had been previously in opposing impeachment.

sarahf: Yeah, maybe it’s what Geoffrey said — she wanted to get out ahead of the report and is assuming it doesn’t have anything too damning.

perry: Part of this goes beyond tactics — I think there is genuine disagreement among Democrats about how bad Trump is and if he should be impeached.

sarahf: It’s interesting though that she uses language like an “unconstitutional assault on the Constitution” to describe the president’s actions and then still rules out the idea of impeachment. It reads to me like she’s keeping a back channel open, but won’t make moves unless public opinion significantly changes.

geoffrey.skelley: I mean, if her goal is for Trump to leave office, her approach makes sense. The probability of Trump winning re-election is somewhere around 50-50, give or take, while the probability of removing him from office is much lower than that. And there is some reason to think that you might even help Trump’s odds of re-election by pursuing impeachment.

nrakich: Substantially lower. And that’s really all you need to know.

perry: If your goal is, say, setting the norm that Trump-like behavior is unbecoming of an American president, then maybe you have a different calculus. I’m not sure the Republicans in 1998 thought Clinton would be removed (there were plenty of Dems in the Senate to block it) but they wanted to say they really thought his conduct was bad.

nrakich: A censure is always an option in that case.

perry: That is interesting. Would the House censure Trump if the Mueller report is bad enough?

nrakich: That seems to me like a sensible middle ground. It doesn’t turn the 2020 election into a referendum on impeachment, but it sends the message you want to send, and it doesn’t have to pass the Senate.

sarahf: So where do we land on the question of whether Democrats have an impeachment problem? Do they? And so Pelosi was just trying to nip it in the bud by playing the role of scapegoat? Or is Pelosi’s stance on the issue the real problem?

perry: I don’t think Dems have an impeachment problem — because I think the group who really wants to impeach Trump is maybe 60 or 70 House Democrats (66 Democrats voted against tabling an impeachment proposal last year) and some activists like Tom Steyer. The core party position is to investigate and check Trump rather than try and impeach him, so I don’t think Pelosi was leading the party to a place where it wasn’t already — she just might have said it more forcefully than others have (and maybe said more than was needed).

geoffrey.skelley: Right, about one-third (66) of the House Democratic caucus seemingly favored it when they had just over 190 seats, and if that’s still true, then it’s like 80 of 235 members now. So until Pelosi finds herself with a majority of her caucus in favor of impeachment, I don’t think she has a major problem.

nrakich: Agreed. I don’t think Democrats have an impeachment problem right now. And even if they start impeachment proceedings, I’m not convinced it would become a problem — we’d have to look at what the data says then. I think Pelosi is smart to oppose it (for now), but then again, maybe she would have been smarter to just sweep the issue under the rug as long as possible.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.