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If Impeachment Was Inevitable, What Difference Did The Hearings Make?

The impeachment process has for weeks seemed headed toward an important but perhaps unsurprising outcome: The U.S. House, on a largely party-line vote, impeaches President Trump. Then, the U.S. Senate, after a fairly short trial and also on a largely party-line vote, acquits him. We’ve now had two weeks of public testimony tying the president to a scheme to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for almost $400 million in foreign aid and a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Officials in Washington have had time to digest those hearings, talk to their constituents and — perhaps most importantly — examine the initial wave of post-hearing polling.

So, will Trump be removed from office? Will Republicans face a major backlash for standing by him? Will Democrats face one for trying to force him from office?

The answer to all three of those questions — at least so far — is almost certainly not.

The most important story around the impeachment process is what hasn’t changed. Despite lots of damning evidence coming to light, impeachment as an issue hasn’t broken through partisan lines. Impeaching or impeaching and removing Trump from office remain very popular with Democrats and very unpopular with Republicans. But on a broader scale, it has a plurality of support: 48 percent of Americans are in favor while 44 percent are opposed, per FiveThirtyEight’s impeachment tracker. This is a small uptick in support compared to the beginning of October, just after the Ukraine scandal broke, when it was 45-45. Trump’s approval rating — perhaps the best single measure of his reelection chances this far out — has barely budged during that time. The same is true of the generic congressional ballot, which measures which party people want in control of Congress.

With no evidence of a public backlash, congressional Democrats seem to be leaning fully into impeachment. At the same time, congressional Republican opposition has not softened, as GOP members see polls showing their rank and file strongly behind Trump. Perhaps the most telling moment of the two weeks of public hearings came not from the officials testifying but from Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a fairly moderate Republican and occasional Trump critic who is not running for reelection next year. Hurd, who heard all of the testimony up close as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, declared that he would not support impeachment before the hearings had officially concluded. If Hurd isn’t going to break with Trump (and isn’t bothering to even really consider the decision), I think it’s safe to assume very few, if not zero, House Republicans will support impeachment.

But despite the likely ending of this process seeming as inevitable as ever, I do think other things have changed slightly.

First, the potential for a few more House Democrats and some Senate Democrats to break with the party on impeachment has probably gone up.

Only two Democrats — Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — voted against starting the initial impeachment inquiry. It’s likely that the vast majority of House Democrats will follow through and back the formal impeachment of the president. The hearings provided more details of inappropriate behavior by Trump and his advisers that buttress the Democrats’ decision to start the impeachment process. It’s also probably easier for a House member who voted for the inquiry to follow up and support impeachment itself, rather than risk seeming like a flip-flopper. Finally, another controversy emerged amid the impeachment process — Trump, over the objections of military leaders, softened the punishments of three service members accused of war crimes. That move is likely to harden the view among more moderate congressional Democrats that the president is abusing his powers as commander-in-chief and deserves to be impeached.

That said, it will be worth keeping an eye on the 29 Democrats in districts that Trump won in 2016 who voted for the initial impeachment inquiry. Do any of them have second thoughts? If 44 percent of Americans overall oppose impeachment or impeachment and removal, that number is likely to be an outright majority in districts where Trump won in 2016. If there is a Senate trial, the obvious Democrats to watch are Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin is fairly conservative and praises Trump at times, while Jones is up for reelection next year in a very pro-Trump state. I would consider both of them possible, perhaps even likely, votes to acquit Trump.

Second, the potential for House or Senate Republicans to break with the party on impeachment has probably gone down.

No House Republican voted in favor of launching the impeachment inquiry last month. All but three Senate Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — supported a resolution condemning the House’s initial closed-door investigation.

Looking at the polls, it’s hard to see any Republicans breaking with the president, either in an impeachment vote in the House or in a removal vote in the Senate. Only 11 percent of Republican voters currently support impeachment. Even the independent-minded Romney, who is not up for reelection until 2024, has to be somewhat nervous about casting a vote in the face of so much resistance in his party, especially after getting some backlash in Utah for making even moderately negative comments about Trump with regards to the Ukraine scandal.

What about the 16 House Republicans and three senators — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Pat Roberts of Kansas — who are retiring from public office at the conclusion of this term? Never say never, but I would expect none of them to back impeachment. These retiring members are likely to seek jobs at lobbying firms and other organizations where they will be paid in part for their connections and ties to the Republican Party. A pro-impeachment vote is probably not that useful for retiring members — particularly if Trump wins a second term.

Third, the nature and number of articles of impeachment has probably changed.

Democrats have been angered by Trump urging officials close to him — such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — not to testify while simultaneously criticizing the inquiry for a dearth of witnesses who had direct contact with the president. So I think the odds of an article of impeachment involving obstructing Congress’s ability to investigate the president have increased since the start of the hearings. (Just such an article was adopted by the House Judiciary Committee against President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.)

And finally, the odds that either the House or the Senate shifts the schedule have probably gone up.

Members of both parties know how this is likely to end — a House impeachment in December and a Senate acquittal in January. They also know where the public stands. So I wonder if either party opts to change strategy. Do the Democrats consider putting off an impeachment vote or delaying it until early next year, both to try to force more witnesses from the administration to testify and to try to figure out if there is some way they can avoid a seemingly inevitable acquittal of Trump in the Senate?

Do Republicans, sensing no real backlash among the GOP base, make the trial in the Senate fairly long in an effort to interrupt the Democratic primaries, which start on Feb. 3 in Iowa and include six members of the Senate1 who would be jurors? I tend to think that Democrats will impeach before Christmas and that the Senate will hold a fairly short trial that gives the candidates concurrently serving in the Senate a chance to spend plenty of time in Iowa. But I wouldn’t rule out something odd happening.


Overall, though, the story of Trump’s impeachment so far has really been defined by partisanship — and partisanship is hard to overcome. That impeachment has split the country mostly along party lines is itself a testament to the fact that Americans do view the Ukraine scandal as serious — many independents and most Democrats have overcome their initial reservations about impeaching Trump. But now that impeachment has become a partisan issue, it’s simply difficult to imagine it not ending as one too.

Footnotes

  1. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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