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How Could Impeachment Affect The Democratic Primary?

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

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Stories around the allegations that President Trump used the power of the presidency to seek dirt on his political rival in a phone call to the Ukrainian president in July are moving fast. The House has opened an official impeachment inquiry into the president, and some Democrats have even suggested they’ll draft articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving.

But there’s also an election going on (in case you forgot) … so how does the question of whether Congress should move to impeach Trump affect the Democratic primary?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Well, since Sept. 20 — which is both the day the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the whistleblower complaint alleged that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and, not coincidentally, the last time I really thought about the 2020 Democratic primary — Sen. Elizabeth Warren has gained significantly in the Real Clear Politics average, and Biden has slipped.

And I think there are lots of reasons to believe this story would help Warren and hurt Biden.

Warren was one of the first 2020 candidates to come out in favor of impeachment, back in April, and she has been one of the clearest candidates about where she stands on the issue.

So given that support for impeachment has increased among Democrats, as our tracker of impeachment polls shows, I think a sense of urgency among Democrats to impeach Trump could help Warren.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I disagree with this take pretty strongly.

nrakich: Oh good! I was afraid we were all going to agree.

perry: I don’t think the “scandal” (Biden himself did nothing wrong; his son, Hunter Biden, seems to have done something that is perhaps not ideal but not illegal) will hurt Biden among Democratic voters who were already seriously considering voting for him.

Basically everyone in the party is defending him, and I suspect that the people who are likely to say this is a problem for him (by showing he and his family made money through politics/cronyism) were already Warren or Bernie Sanders supporters.

Impeachment is the position of the Democratic Party, and Biden is in line with that. He and Warren are not that different on this issue now.

nrakich: But doesn’t it show leadership on Warren’s part that she was one of the first to call for impeachment?

As for Biden himself, I don’t think a lot of Democrats buy what Trump is selling — that Biden’s activities in Ukraine were corrupt. But I think it could pierce his aura of electability if Democrats worry that it’s something that could be used against him in a general election.

sarahf: Yeah, I tend to agree with Perry, but do think there is a “tug-of-war” around media narratives right now involving the Ukraine scandal, and while Fox News has been the main outlet focusing more on Biden’s involvement in Ukraine, rather than Trump’s conduct, the déjà vu to 2016 makes me think this has the potential to overtake/overshadow the primary.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I think impeachment is pretty clearly good news for Warren. But that’s not mutually exclusive with it being good news for Biden. My initial instinct was that it could help Biden in some ways because (1) Democrats would have to come to his defense, and (2) it makes Trump looks like he fears Biden, which bolsters his electability case. My second instinct, though, is that it isn’t so helpful for Biden.

Why? It’s not so much because his vague aura of electability might suffer, although maybe there’s some of that. But more because it requires a campaign that can be nimble and react to unpredictable news developments in real time, and I’m not really sure that campaign is Biden’s — they’ve run a very risk-averse strategy so far.

perry: But I think Biden is smart to lean into this and basically argue, “I’m so electable that Trump is already trying to cheat to beat me.” That seems like a good argument to me, particularly in the Democratic primary. That argument also seems true!

natesilver: It’s a pretty decent argument!

Another dimension to all this is that if impeachment is in the news all the time, it’s bad news for any candidate who isn’t one of the front-runners now. Since the story occupies a lot of media bandwidth that could be spent on, I dunno, a Cory Booker surge, or whatever.

perry: But in general, I do think a fast-moving event favors Warren, just because her strategy (run to the left) is easy to execute and Biden’s (figure out where the middle of the electorate is) is a bit harder. And if this moves to the Senate, you can imagine Warren being like, “Let’s convict” and Biden being less eager to say that.

nrakich: Maybe this is a bad analogy, but I think maybe the impeachment issue is to Warren as the Iraq War was to Barack Obama in 2008. He had a clear anti-war stance and no past baggage on the issue (unlike Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the war), and that really gave him credibility on an important issue to Democratic primary voters.

Furthermore, Warren’s steady rise in the polls actually started around the time she came out in favor of impeachment in April — although there were also a lot of other factors at play, so we can’t say for sure it was the reason she caught fire.

sarahf: I mean, to some extent, though, this has to be objectively better for anyone who isn’t Biden, because being dragged through the mud on this scandal (regardless of whether any wrongdoing actually happened) isn’t great PR.

And while the Biden campaign has tried to put the kibosh on stories that Biden did anything wrong, I do find it astounding that a Monmouth poll this week found that 42 percent of voters think Biden “probably did” pressure Ukrainian officials to not investigate his son’s business interests.

perry: I still think the number of Biden Democratic primary supporters leaving him over this is close to zero, and the number of Democrats who were thinking about voting for Biden who will be bothered by this is also close to zero.

What percentage of that 42 percent will vote for Trump? Probably most of them.

nrakich: Yeah, and that’s borne out by the crosstabs of that poll — Democrats said 65 percent to 19 percent that Biden “probably did not” inappropriately pressure Ukraine. But as I said above, it’s not about Democrats leaving Biden because they believe the allegations. It’s about them getting scared that he now has a scandal, however unsubstantiated, that could hurt him in the general election.

perry: So they choose Warren instead?

Does that seem likely to you?

natesilver: Yeah I’m with Perry on this!

I think voters aren’t taking “electability” quite as literally as you or I might.

Otherwise they’d consider Amy Klobuchar really electable or whatever, because she’s from a swing-ish state and has won by big margins before.

nrakich: Nate, I agree that the ordinary voter may not spend a lot of time diving into a candidate’s average overperformance above partisan lean or whatever — but I think simpler concepts like “scandals hurt your chances of winning” can resonate. This may be one of the lessons many people took from 2016 (along with, maybe, “America isn’t ready to elect a woman president”) — that even an overhyped scandal like the one over Clinton’s emails can cost someone an election.

And Perry, Warren doesn’t need all those ex-Biden voters to flock to her. She is doing fine on her own. If Biden drops to 15 percent, Warren will probably be in first place by default.

sarahf: I’m not sure we’ll see mass defection from Biden over this. But I do think Warren stands to benefit, however marginally, just by not being at the center of it all. I still think that while the Ukraine situation might not be bad for Biden, it’s not great either.

perry: Part of why I don’t think this will hurt Biden with voters who care a lot about electability is because the rest of the really viable candidates don’t scream electable (the white woman, the black woman, the socialist, the 37-year-old) in the way that voters typically think about electability.

natesilver: We also haven’t really seen how perceptions of Warren change now that she’s perceived by the media as a front-runner — maybe even the front-runner — instead of an underdog. I do wonder if there’s a bit of recency bias in how we’re covering that too.

nrakich: Right. I fully expect a scrutiny cycle for Warren coming up.

But I think that’s outside the purview of this chat! 🙂

natesilver: I mean, in some ways, you’d think that Biden could gain ground by saying, “While all these other Democrats are out there talking about impeachment, I’m talking about how we can BEAT Donald Trump based on issues that matter to the middle class,” etc.

Except that… the scandal at the heart of Democrats’ best impeachment case directly involves him!

sarahf: I do wonder, though, how much people are generally factoring impeachment into how they think about either a) the candidates or b) the election, period. Granted, this CNN poll is from March, but what stood out to me in that poll is that no one named the Russia investigation as their top issue for 2020. Do you think we’re headed toward a similar outcome here? Or is the dynamic different?

natesilver: At the very least, Democratic voters’ focus on impeachment is likely to increase now that all the party leaders and candidates back it.

perry: Where there might be a shift is in how the primary is fought. Basically every debate up to now has had this super-boring Medicare for All vs. Medicare “for everyone who wants it” discussion. But does that go away now? Are the terms of the campaign now different?

sarahf: Do you think there will now be more questions about whether the candidates support impeachment?

perry: Not impeachment. But the debates have all been very policy-focused. And now I wonder if they will be more about democratic norms and values. “Should Trump be removed from office?” is certainly a question that will be asked.

nrakich: Yeah, the irony of this whole thing is that impeachment is actually an irrelevant topic for a presidential campaign. If any of these people wins the White House, Trump will be out of office anyway!

perry: But impeachment is in the news, and I think it’s more interesting than restating everyone’s Medicare position. It could lead to more interesting questions, too. For example, Kamala Harris’s idea to ban Trump from Twitter has come out of this whole discussion. My guess is Warren may be to the right of Harris on that.

nrakich: Oh, I agree that it will come up. I just find it funny.

natesilver: But calling on Twitter to kick Trump off, though, is (apart from the journalistic case against kicking Trump off Twitter) sort of daft strategically since Trump probably hurts himself politically (and maybe even legally) with his various outbursts on Twitter. You’ve also had Harris calling for Brett Kavanaugh’s impeachment if I’m not mistaken, which seemed very off-message for Democrats.

nrakich: Warren did as well.

perry: The primary has largely been a wonk-fest, which is good for wonky candidates (Warren) and candidates who clearly reject wonkiness (Biden). But maybe this is a new phase of the campaign and a different type of candidate emerges. Maybe someone like Pete Buttigieg who has campaigned a lot on norms and democratic values. He also speaks about foreign policy fairly fluently. I wonder if he can turn this moment into something.

sarahf: Given that support for impeachment is so high among Democrats, do you think any of the candidates have anything to lose by saying they support impeaching Trump?

natesilver: I dunno. If Harris is any indication, I don’t think it’s going to be very easy for any of the other low-polling Democrats to latch onto a good argument about impeachment.

perry: Right, now that impeachment is a position of the party, I think it’s hard to differentiate yourself on it.

natesilver: I guess you could argue it’s good for Tom Steyer, who really was out in front on impeachment.

nrakich: Yeah, by all rights, Steyer should get a boost from this, as he’s run so many TV ads on the topic. But I think your point above about the media oxygen being taken away from non-front-runners is a good one.

natesilver: Maybe in a weird way it’s good, too, for someone like Andrew Yang, because he’s the most unconventional candidate and can counterprogram the most. It’s not like he’s been relying on much traditional media attention anyway.

Like, if you’re airing something alongside the Super Bowl, you don’t want to be showing a college football game. You want something really different.

nrakich: Like the Puppy Bowl???

sarahf: Tulsi Gabbard certainly held out on supporting impeachment — but to Nate’s earlier point, I’m not sure talking impeachment will help differentiate any of the candidates already struggling in the polls.

But OK, if the conversation does become more about norms and values and how we think about the office of the presidency, does that actually change the primary that much?

natesilver: I guess one way it could be bad for Warren is if it makes the debates less policy-driven. Then again, I’m not sure if Warren is benefiting from her policy positions so much as being branded as The Policy Candidate™.

nrakich: One point worth reiterating is that we’re still probably very early in the Trump/Ukraine/impeachment story timeline. The story will continue to evolve, and we don’t know where that will take the political conversation.

perry: After the El Paso shooting, Beto O’Rourke was in the news a lot. But his numbers didn’t move, and that tells me that he is still very unlikely to break through. And so while this feels like the kind of story where Buttigieg can come in and say, “This is another example of how Washington is broken and we need fresh faces,” I would not be surprised if he didn’t gain in the polls either.

A lot of what we are seeing in the polls right now is Warren gaining from Harris, Sanders and, to some extent, Biden. So I think the biggest shift for Warren, as Nate was hinting at, is not her stance on impeachment, but that she is now doing so well that her rivals will attack her more and the media will increase its scrutiny of her. Perhaps this is an atmosphere in which the primary is shaken up a bit. Warren has already kind of won the college-educated, Hillary Clinton-voter mini primary over Harris and in some ways has won the populist mini primary over Sanders, too. But what happens next is unclear.

We’re tracking impeachment polls; check them out!

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.