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Impeaching Trump On Russia Was Unpopular. Will Ukraine Be Different?

Rather suddenly, we are on a trajectory toward the potential impeachment of President Trump.

Both close allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and vulnerable Democrats in swing districts have signaled their desire this week to pursue impeachment proceedings over President Trump’s alleged efforts to induce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Joe Biden, whose son Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukranian gas producer during Biden’s tenure as vice president. A majority of House Democrats had already expressed a desire to impeach Trump over his conduct toward Russia in the 2016 campaign and his handling of the Russia investigation, but the list of pro-impeachment Democrats then included relatively few from competitive districts, and Pelosi had largely held the reins against impeachment.

From ABC News:

This time is different. Although the story is still unfolding as I write this, impeachment is, at a minimum, highly plausible. And if Pelosi wants impeachment — as she reportedly does — she can probably get it. Democrats have a fairly comfortable majority in the House and they have been relatively unified under Pelosi. Betting markets, which had been bearish on impeachment, now assign around a 50 percent chance that Trump will be impeached (but not necessarily removed from office) during his first term.

But Democrats had better hope that something else is different this time too: public opinion. Despite Trump being quite unpopular, and despite the public largely buying Democrats’ interpretation of the fact pattern on Russia — most polls find that a majority of the public thinks that Trump sought to obstruct the investigation into Russia, for instance — impeachment was a soundly unpopular proposition.

In the table below, I’ve compiled data on all polls from PollingReport.com, a compendium of high-quality telephone surveys, on whether the public thinks Trump should be impeached or at least that Congress should begin impeachment proceedings.1 And despite the slightly different question wordings — you could favor holding hearings on impeaching Trump but not actually favor his impeachment per se2 — these polls have tended to produce similar results: Impeachment was an unpopular option through the entirety of the Russia investigation process.

On average, in all polls since the start of 2017, 38.5 percent of the public favored impeachment and 55.7 percent opposed it, which is fairly close to a mirror image of Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings. And there had been absolutely no sign that the public was moving toward impeachment. If anything, the opposite was true and impeachment had become slightly less popular. Polls conducted after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the public on April 183 showed an average of 37.3 percent of the public favoring impeachment, and 57.3 percent opposed. The two polls in the database conducted since Mueller’s testimony to Congress on July 24 showed even worse numbers: 33.5 percent in favor of impeachment and 59.5 percent against.

This article is meant to be forward-looking, rather than a comprehensive analysis of all facets of public opinion related to the Russia investigation. But numbers like these ought to at least give Democrats pause. Heretofore, quite a lot of voters have both disapproved of Trump’s conduct and disapproved of impeaching him.

Why this gap has persisted isn’t entirely clear. Pelosi’s reluctance on impeachment undoubtedly dissuaded some Democratic voters from getting on board; the most recent Quinnipiac poll found only 61 percent of Democrats in favor of impeachment and 29 percent opposed. Those numbers may increase now that House leadership is coming around to impeachment.

The same poll, however, found independent voters mostly against impeachment — 62 percent opposed it to 28 percent in favor. That’s despite Trump having only a 35 percent approval rating among independents in the poll. So impeachment has given Democrats problems among swing voters as well.

Another explanation may simply be that the public has a high threshold for impeachment, especially for an elected president and especially especially when that president will be on the ballot again soon. By contrast, Andrew Johnson was an unelected president when he was impeached — he had taken over the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton took place in their second terms. Voters may not think Russia met that threshold; in fact, the Russia investigation itself was the lowest priority for midterm election voters among 12 issues that Gallup asked about last year.

One explanation that doesn’t make any sense — but which seems to come up from pro-impeachment partisans every time I’ve pointed out impeachment’s lack of popularity — is the notion that the Democrats simply weren’t focused enough on the Russia investigation or that the public didn’t know enough about it. In fact, the Russia investigation has been one of the most focused-upon news stories of our lifetime; it was the most-covered story of 2017 on the network news and the second most-covered of 2018 after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. And the public has not moved toward impeachment as more and more facts have been revealed about Russia, including Mueller’s exhaustive report. This is despite the fact that, as I mentioned — feel free to browse the polling results yourself — the public mostly agrees with the Democrats’ interpretation of Mueller’s findings; they do not think the report cleared Trump of wrongdoing, for instance.

Other Democrats like to cite the fact that impeachment against Nixon was initially fairly unpopular. But this comparison doesn’t entirely work either. Rather dramatic facts were being revealed throughout the Watergate investigation and impeachment process, which tended to sway public opinion. By contrast, the outlines of Mueller’s eventual findings were largely laid out for the public a long time ago, through Mueller’s various indictments and through reporting at places such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Whereas for the past year or so at least, Democrats have had relatively little new material to work with on Russia. The increasing numbers of House Democrats who called for impeachment over the past few months didn’t seem to move public sentiment in Democrats’ favor either.

Again, none of this is meant to provide for an absolutely definitive analysis of how public opinion might have evolved if Democrats had proceeded on impeachment as a result of the Russia investigation. The sample size of impeachments is small, which make any conclusions tentative. But that uncertainty doesn’t necessarily work to Democrats’ benefit, given that the status quo is fairly promising for them electorally: Trump is quite unpopular and, although these polls don’t mean much at this stage, he currently trails all his major Democratic rivals (especially Biden, but also Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) in head-to-head matchups. Democrats are also coming off a strong midterm.


The politics of impeachment on Ukraine may be different than on Russia. But Democrats should take public opinion seriously. That doesn’t mean you always have to do the poll-driven thing. But don’t wish the numbers away because you don’t like them, or presume that they’ll change in your favor, or assume there won’t be consequences for taking an unpopular action.

More specifically for Democrats, their failure to persuade the public that Russia warranted impeachment offers several potential lessons if they are to proceed on Ukraine:

Lesson No. 1: Be narrow and specific, perhaps with a near-exclusive focus on Ukraine. For some Democrats in Congress who were nearly ready to impeach Trump over Russia, Ukraine may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. But Democrats probably shouldn’t portray it to the public that way.

The public was largely not persuaded about the wisdom of impeaching Trump on Russia. And Ukraine provides a much clearer story, in some ways: Trump allegedly pressured a foreign leader to undermine one of his chief rivals in the 2020 election. It’s not a case of the cover-up being worse than the crime, or of Trump attempting to obstruct the investigation, or of actions that took place before Trump took office. It’s a direct, recent and relatively simple throughline. The more focused Democrats are on Ukraine specifically, the better chance that public opinion will turn out better for them than it did on Russia.

Even worse for Democrats than combining Ukraine and Russia would be to offer a laundry list of impeachment charges, involving the emoluments clause or Trump’s general conduct in office or what not. The public has a high threshold for what constitutes impeachable conduct, so reasons that are below that threshold might weaken the overall case for impeachment rather than being additive.

Furthermore, such a strategy would tend to play into the White House’s strengths. The White House is fairly skilled at muddying the news cycle and navigating its way through the swampy thicket of a story in ways that can fatigue the public. It isn’t a perfect analogy, but in the Kavanaugh hearings, the sheer volume of accusations against Kavanaugh eventually helped him; the less credible allegations allowed Kavanaugh and the White House to cast doubt on the more credible ones, such as Christine Blasey Ford’s. Throwing more accusations or alleged reasons for impeachment at Trump could likewise allow the White House to focus on the weakest ones.

Interestingly enough, the Washington Post op-ed by seven first-term Democrats calling for impeachment solely referred to Ukraine as a potential cause for impeachment. So Democratic leadership may agree with this strategy.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t overpromise on details unless you can deliver. You’ll sometimes hear the sentiment that the entire Mueller Report might have been more politically damaging to Trump if it had dropped all at once instead of slowly being teased out through indictments and news accounts and investigative reports over the course of two years. That seems reasonable enough, although there’s no way to test the hypothetical. It’s also true, though, that the public’s reaction to news events — and the media’s reaction to news events, which conditions the public’s response — is often calibrated relative to “expectations.” If the expectations get too far ahead of themselves, even a relatively damaging story may land with a thud.

Without relitigating the Mueller Report more than we have to, it’s safe to say that it provided neither the total exoneration that the president claimed, nor the direct evidence of collusion with Russia that Democrats might have been hoping for. That’s to say nothing of the breathless speculation about what the Mueller Report would say on cable news, or the too-frequent reporting missteps on important Russia-related stories (even if, in my view anyway, the press largely got the big picture right on Russia).

The fact that Ukraine is a much simpler story than Russia again works to Democrats’ benefit here: There are fewer details to screw up. But if Democrats promise caught-red-handed evidence above and beyond what’s been made public already (the White House has not exactly been steadfast in its denials) and doesn’t deliver on it, it’s obviously going to injure their case. And it should go without saying that the more damaging the information, the harder it could be for Democrats to obtain. That Trump has pledged to release a “fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of his phone conversation with Zelensky might make Democrats a little nervous since Trump presumably wouldn’t release it so soon if it contained many bombshells.

Lesson No. 3: Emphasize the threats to election integrity. As I mentioned, I suspect (though I certainly can’t prove) that some of the public’s reluctance on impeachment over Russia stemmed from the fact that Trump was still in his first term and is running for re-election. We want to decide this one for ourselves, the public may have been saying.

In some ways, that’s a bigger problem for Democrats on Ukraine, since the election is even closer now. But, of course, the Ukraine scandal involves the 2020 election: Trump’s efforts to impair Biden’s candidacy. My point is simply that Democrats should emphasize that angle since any impeachment hearings would take place directly against the backdrop of the election, a prospect that voters might otherwise find strange.

Lesson No. 4: Stay unified. As I said above, I don’t think Democratic infighting over impeachment on Russia explains all, or necessarily most, of its unpopularity with the general public. But it probably explains some of it. This tends to be one of Pelosi’s strengths, but the more Democrats are willing to sink or swim together on Ukraine impeachment, the more compelling their message is liable to be to the general public.

Lesson No. 5: Work quickly and urgently. Now that they’ve seemingly decided to move forward on Ukraine, there are lots of reasons for Democrats to move fast. It will reduce the potential for public fatigue over the story, which can set in quickly for all news stories in the Trump era. And a sense of urgency could underscore some of the other themes here, e.g. that there’s an immediate threat to the integrity of the 2020 election, to national security, or both.

Obviously, Democrats will need to weigh moving rapidly against Lesson No. 2 (the risk of getting too far ahead of themselves). Nobody said impeachment would be easy for anyone involved!

But the other benefit to moving fast is that, if impeachment backfires on Democrats and makes Trump more popular, Democrats will have more time to recover from that. Impeachment isn’t necessarily an all-in bet for Democrats, but it’s an awfully big one.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. I excluded polls if they asked a hypothetical question — for example, whether Trump should be impeached conditional on his taking certain actions or on Robert Mueller having come to certain conclusions. I also excluded polls that provided multiple options on impeachment, instead of a simple yes/no answer. I also included one recent poll from Monmouth University that wasn’t listed in the PollingReport database for some reason even though other Monmouth polls had been.

  2. If anything, though, questions that merely ask about impeachment hearings understate how popular impeachment itself would be.

  3. But before his testimony to Congress.

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

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