It’s November. That means your seasonal depression is settling in for the long haul, the 2020 election is a year away, and the Congressional Democrats are taking the impeachment inquiry into its next, very public phase. This week, some transcripts of formerly closed-door testimony were made public, and televised hearings will now follow.
Given that there are three months until the Iowa caucuses and the official kickoff of voting season — aka, political consequences time! — we’ve been thinking about the various ways that impeachment might affect each party’s 2020 electoral prospects. And there are a lot of them. So while we’re not oracles over here, we can already divine how this could end. Think of this as your wham, bam thank you ma’am primer on impeachment and its potential 2020 outcomes.
I) Things Are Bad For Trump And Very Good For Democrats
This set of scenarios imagines a black and white version of the moral-political universe: the American people believe Trump abused his power and they push to punish him personally and his party more broadly.
1) Trump loses everything: In this version of events, the public impeachment hearings become appointment viewing for the nation, attracting tons of attention and meaningfully shifting public opinion. The Democrats pull off the synthesizing of facts and narrative in such a way that a majority of independents and a healthy swath of Republicans turn against President Trump. (Right now, FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls asking about impeachment and removal from office shows 47.5 percent of Americans in favor, 45.6 percent opposed. Currently, only 11.1 percent of Republicans think the president should be impeached.) So much does the tide turn, in fact, that Trump loses his congressional allies and is forced to resign. Think Nixon. Mike Pence becomes president, but only for a few months; the public sees Pence as irrevocably linked to Trump. Like Gerald Ford’s eventual fate, but all sped up. Even sympathetic Republican voters stay home in key states, while key swing demographics move toward the Democrats. Pence loses the election and what’s worse, the GOP loses the Senate, as vulnerable senators are seen as having done too little, too late. Ouch.
2) Voters abandon Trump but stick with the GOP: Congress remains split along partisan lines and few in the Republican Party end up pulling a Fredo on Trump. He doesn’t need to resign and stays at the top of the GOP ticket in 2020. But the televised hearings are damning to Trump — the public doesn’t like what it sees, and remembers that come November. The impeachment proceeding lowers morale among Republican voters who aren’t part of Trump’s hardcore base (the president currently has a 41.3 percent approval rating and a 54.6 percent disapproval), leading to lowered turnout particularly among reluctant Trump voters in key states. (We first identified reluctant Trump voters in the wake of the 2016 election as Republicans who had cast their ballot for the president unenthusiastically. This group tends to be better educated than the rest of Trump voters, though like most of the president’s voters, they are white, and middle-aged or older.) This scenario might look like the 2018 midterms, when independent voters went for Democrats by a 12-point margin. In this scenario, Trump loses the election but things are a little better for GOP as a whole; it keeps the Senate. Democrats get two houses: the White House and the House of Representatives.
II) Things Are Bad For Trump But OK For Republicans
This set of scenarios imagines a post-impeachment political landscape that has rid itself of Trump. The Republican Party is in a state of flux, trying to figure out what comes next after the end of an administration and party platform driven by a single, powerful personality.
1) President Pence: Impeachment hearings go really badly. The tide of public opinion turns against Trump and he loses his allies in Congress and is forced to resign. This scenario is a little like the one we started with, except with one key difference: Pence becomes president and wins the general election. He draws huge turnout from Republican voters who love Trump — the campaign charges them up about the unjust fate of Trump — while also reassuring reluctant Trump voters that he, Pence, will make for a steadier hand on the till. Currently, it should be noted, Pence has a net average approval of -5.5 percent according to a Real Clear Politics average; Trump is at -12.0 percent.
2) The Republican Civil War: The tide of public opinion turns somewhat against Trump, but not enough to shake the faith of leading GOP figures — Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham still watch the Super Bowl with Trump. But certain rebellious GOP figures are fed up and have had enough of hiding their concerns: Mitt Romney joins Jeff Flake (remember him?) in calling for Trump’s impeachment and removal. The moderate GOP caucus falls in line with these figures and the whole lot of them decide to throw their support behind the candidacy of Bill Weld, or, even better, back Romney in a longshot primary bid. They know they probably won’t win, but they siphon off support from Trump and lodge enough attacks for the president to be mortally wounded come general election time. He loses, and Romney et al finally settle in to implementing the 2012 GOP post-mortem plan to win back Latinos.
III) Things Go Very Well For Trump And Backfire On Democrats
Oops. The Democrats took a gamble on impeachment and lost. Their narrative doesn’t gel on TV; the details of the Ukraine scandal are too mired in diplomatic minutiae. People can’t keep track of the cast of characters. Who’s Kurt Volker again? Wait, what did Gordon Sondland do that was so bad? The Fox News apparatus proves to be a powerful story-telling voice for the president’s side of things, and Democrats can’t push their advantage.
1) Trump wins: The House remains split along partisan lines — nothing really changes after the vote to open the inquiry. Few if any Republican senators vote against Trump during his Senate trial. And after watching a whole lot of CSPAN-style television, the American public is divided over what they’re seeing, a la Brett Kavanaugh. (Republican support for now-Justice Kavanaugh only increased following his testimony while Democratic opposition ramped up.) The election is a squeaker. A combination of semi-ambivalent Republicans and low-energy Democrats — perhaps their base isn’t entirely thrilled about their nominee? — leads to Trump winning the election. The Democrats keep the House, the Republicans keep the Senate. Late night shows’ writer’s rooms get a little ‘70s retro, firing up the cocaine to fuel them through four more years of comb over jokes.
2) Utter chaos and destruction for Democrats: Congress remains split along partisan lines and the televised hearings leave the American public divided, a la Kavanaugh. Republican voters are angry, though. Really angry. The election is a squeaker but Trump pulls through, thanks to his enthused base, reluctant Trump voters and independents who think that the Democrats have led the country through a national pain in the neck for naught. (Independents are the real surprise, given nearly half of them supported impeachment in early November 2019.) The Democrats not only lose the White House, but also the House, as Democratic members from more moderate districts are punished for having put the president on trial. The Democratic gains of the 2018 midterms are all but completely reversed as college-educated whites from the suburbs — the Trump era’s stereotypical swing voter — make their way back to the GOP side of the dividing line.
3) The weird mixed-bag: The public hearings are damning but Republican voters and elected officials stick with Trump. Democratic voters nationwide are ready to dump Trump, though. Turnout on both sides is high. In certain key swing states, vulnerable Republican senators are ousted (a recent Morning Consult poll shows sliding net approval ratings for some Republican senators up for reelection). The Democrats keep the House, miraculously win the Senate and come out ahead in the popular vote, too. But in a re-hashing of the 2016 election, Trump wins the electoral college. The nation goes to bed confused on Nov. 3, 2020, and spends the next four years wondering whether there was ever any other way things could have ended.