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Impeachment Didn’t Change Minds — It Eroded Trust

Before last year, Willa Engel, 65, had never thought of herself as an especially political person. But the impeachment process changed that. As the House Democrats’ investigation rolled forward through the late fall, she found herself glued to the television, watching witness after witness testify about President Trump’s behavior. “I got a little addicted to it,” she said. “I believe I watched about 90 percent of it.”

But there were moments in the hearings when Engel, a Democratic-leaning independent, got so upset she had to turn away. “Sometimes when the White House counsel or the Republicans were on TV, I had to mute it. It was too much,” she said. The hearings did convince Engel that Trump had committed an impeachable offense, but now that it’s over, she tries not to think about it. “I get so angry,” she said. “I try to block it out of my mind.”

For a little over three months, we tracked over 1,100 Americans on how they felt about the impeachment process, surveying respondents like Engel every few weeks via Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to find out whether their views on impeachment were changing.1 But there was remarkably little movement. The share of Americans who thought Trump committed an impeachable offense hovered between 55 and 58 percent in six separate surveys.

Respondent after respondent told us that their belief of Trump’s innocence or guilt was just reinforced by the process. “The Democrats put up a flimsy case,” said Alan Satow, 60, a Republican. “They had all these witnesses, but they weren’t presenting facts. It was just a lot of hearsay.”

The impeachment process might not have shifted anyone’s view about Trump, but it did drive Americans further into their partisan camps — and in the process, unraveled their already frayed sense of trust in the political system. When we spoke to them after the Senate trial had concluded, our respondents had few kind words for either party. Instead, they saw impeachment as a stark and painful example of the country’s partisan stalemate.

“The way I see it is, we seem to be in a place where our politicians don’t really make decisions for themselves — they just say, ‘Well I belong to this party and so that’s how I’m going to vote,’” said Emily Underwood, 29, a Republican-leaning independent. “We’re divided. We’re stuck. I knew that before impeachment, but it’s even clearer to me now.”

Democrats worry impeachment will backfire

When news of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hit the headlines in late September, Richard Scruggs, 31, had an inkling that the allegations against Trump were grave enough to be impeachable. But as the Democrats began to present their case against the president in a series of televised hearings in November, he grew even more certain that Trump had done something seriously wrong. (Scruggs said in our survey that he leans toward the Democrats.)

“The Trump presidency does a number on what seems normal,” said Scruggs. He wasn’t sure what to make of the allegations until he started to read about the lengths to which Trump’s allies had gone to strong-arm the Ukrainian government into probing the Bidens, including efforts to push out the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the discussion of investigations in high-level meetings with Ukrainian and American diplomats. “The idea of putting pressure on foreign governments to investigate your rival seems kind of definitionally a high crime or misdemeanor,” said Scruggs.

Scruggs wasn’t alone. By November, when we fielded the first wave of our survey, 88 percent of Democrats said they were already convinced that Trump had committed an impeachable offense. That means many Democrats may already have had a change of heart on impeachment by the time our survey began, since according to our tracker of impeachment polls, the biggest shift among Democrats happened in late September, around the release of a call summary of Trump and Zelensky’s conversation.

John Stokes, 73, wasn’t fully on board with impeachment at first. But he said he was convinced by the Democrats’ argument that it was their responsibility to hold Trump accountable. And by the end of the process, he said it was clear to him that Trump had committed an impeachable offense. “[Trump] was trying to bribe a foreign country,” he said.

But even as Democrats in our survey became more convinced that Trump’s actions were impeachable, some also started to have nagging concerns that the impeachment process might have inadvertently helped Trump. Throughout the process, a small but substantial chunk of Democrats (around 13 percent) told us that even though they thought Trump had committed an impeachable offense, the voters — not Congress — should decide his fate in the 2020 election. The share of Democrats who thought impeachment was a bad use of Congress’s time rose, too, from 23 percent at the beginning of the Senate trial to 37 percent when it was over. After the trial, a smaller sharer of Democrats said that senators were impartial jurors than the share that thought senators would be impartial. And perhaps most crucially, 30 percent of Democrats thought in the last wave of our survey that impeachment was likely to help Trump win reelection — up from 12 percent just three weeks earlier.

Some panelists told us they thought impeachment was necessary, but they were also worried it might backfire at the polls in November. “I never felt impeachment was the right way to go because it wasn’t going to pass the Senate,” said Alan Simsovic, 62. “My biggest concern was that this was going to galvanize Trump supporters, and I do believe that’s what has happened.”

Others, like Maria Alleyne, 53, said they were alarmed that this could further embolden Trump. “This is not a man whose personality is to learn things and regret his actions,” she said. Instead, Alleyne told us, she thought he’d continue to act in the same way. And she also feared he would “be very vindictive” against the people who were part of the process and “just go after them as hard as he can.”

Republicans became more supportive of Trump

Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters like Simsovic weren’t wrong to worry that impeachment may have knit Trump’s Republican base more tightly to him. Our surveys showed that as impeachment wore on, rank-and-file Republicans did become more supportive of the president and of Republicans more broadly. And that’s saying something, because Republicans had a pretty high opinion of Trump going into the impeachment process. But by the end of the trial, 63 percent of Republicans approved of the way Trump was handling the impeachment process, compared with 51 percent back in November. Ordinary Republican voters also increasingly approved of the way Republicans in Congress handled impeachment as it played out.

Why did Republicans rally around Trump? Part of it may be that relatively few Republicans were ever convinced that Trump had committed an impeachable offense, and the impeachment process did little to change their minds. For instance, over the course of our survey, a majority of Republicans agreed that Trump did ask Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, but only about 25 to 30 percent said that they thought Trump had conditioned aid on those investigations or had tried to cover up his actions.

Glenn Bossmeyer, 71, thought the request to Zelensky had been handled clumsily, but he didn’t see a problem with Trump asking for a probe into Hunter Biden’s business relationships in Ukraine while his father was vice president. “It was a stupid thing to do, because it gave the Democrats more fodder to go after him,” Bossmeyer said. “But whether Hunter Biden ended up in his position because of his father’s influence — I thought it was a fair question to ask.”

Republicans growing more comfortable with Trump’s behavior wasn’t an obvious outcome — at least during the first couple of waves of our survey, when the Democrats publicly presented evidence against the president. For instance, the share of Republicans who believed Trump tied Ukraine’s aid to the investigations rose slightly after former EU ambassador Gordon Sondland explicitly linked Trump to a quid pro quo in public testimony in late November.

But ultimately, many Republicans accepted the argument that this kind of behavior was simply politics as usual and didn’t condemn Trump’s actions. The share of Republicans who said that it was inappropriate to condition aid on an investigation into the Bidens actually went down between November and February, as did the share of Republicans who said a cover-up would be inappropriate.

“It just didn’t come to much,” said Esra Sander, 46. She didn’t like the idea of heads of state trading favors for political leverage, she told us — but she saw it as a part of the dirty underbelly of politics that Trump, with his bull-in-a-china-shop tendencies, had simply exposed. “Has it happened before? Will it happen again? The answer to both is yes,” she said. “Under Trump it’s just more visible.”

People were left angered and disillusioned

There was one thing in our surveys that united ordinary Republicans and Democrats: a sense of anger that for four months, their elected leaders had relentlessly jabbed at the country’s gaping partisan wound. For some, it became exhausting to pick up their newspapers or turn on the TV each day. Very few of the respondents we talked with felt triumphant about how impeachment ended. Instead, they mostly thought the two parties had fought to a messy draw.

“The Democrats were bullies, but the Republicans were just as bad,” said Megon Burkit, 43, who identifies as a Republican. “They didn’t have a strong defense. I think everyone is blowing smoke up our butts.”

The price of this anger and disillusionment appears to have been a loss of trust in public institutions — Congress, the news media, the presidency, you name it. A majority (65 percent) of Americans said their level of trust in the American political system had decreased because of the impeachment process. “Democrats, Republicans — it’s starting to feel like nobody has ordinary working people’s interests at heart,” said Alleyne. (She said in our survey that she leans toward the Democrats.) “They’re not trying to help us. They’re just fighting. Nothing seems to be coming together.”

People say their trust in political institutions has decreased

Share of respondents in the sixth wave of a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll who said their trust in the American political system had increased, decreased, or remained the same, by party

Political system Decreased Increased No change
All 65.4%
5.1%
26.5%
Democratic 72.6
4.7
20.7
Republican 59.0
4.8
34.5

1,104 people responded to all six waves of the survey; this wave was fielded Feb. 5 to Feb. 9.

It also left both Republicans and Democrats with an even more bitter impression of their political rivals. By the time the trial was over, 71 percent of Republicans strongly disapproved of how Democrats in Congress were handling impeachment (approximately the same percentage as in November). Sixty-five percent of Democrats felt the same way about congressional Republicans, up from 49 percent in November.

People who identified as Republican or leaned Republican told us they thought the Democrats were mainly looking for a chance to score political points at Trump’s expense. “I just thought it was a publicity play by the Democrats, trying to grab the limelight,” said Robert Wehner, 70. Democrats, for their part, saw the Republicans as equally mercenary. “The way they lied, how their story kept changing — it’s disturbing,” said Evan Smith, 46. “I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.”

But there were also respondents who told us they felt lost in the increasingly vast no-man’s-land between the two parties. “It’s like there’s a war in Washington, one side against the other, and everyone has to toe the party line,” said Eric Boggis, 61, an independent who said he doesn’t lean toward either party. He doesn’t like Trump and said he didn’t vote for him in 2016. But he thought the Democrats’ efforts were a “long shot” and a waste of time, especially with the presidential election looming on the horizon. “[The Democrats] were never going to get rid of him through impeachment,” Boggis said. “Let the voters have their say, and he’ll probably be gone in a year anyway.”

Footnotes

  1. We conducted six surveys between late November and early February. For the purposes of this article, we limited our analysis to the 1,104 respondents who responded to all six waves.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Laura Bronner is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative editor.

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