Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Next week, former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is finally scheduled to begin, which should give us some insight into how far Republicans are willing to go to distance themselves from Trump. (Hint: not much.)
But first, House Republicans must face a dilemma of their own, which in many ways underscores the dynamics we’ll see at play in the upcoming impeachment trial: Either strip the No. 3 GOP House leader, Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump and publicly rebuked him, of her leadership role or strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who made racist and conspiracy-ridden comments before she got to Congress but who has Trump’s ear, of her committee positions. (House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has, at this point, signaled that he condemns Greene’s previous comments, but he will not look to strip her of her committee assignments and instead blames Democrats for politicizing the issue, as they will push the issue to a vote. [Editor’s note: After publication, House Republicans voted to keep Cheney in her current leadership position late Wednesday, 145 to 61.])
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Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has thrown his support behind Cheney and without directly naming Greene made it clear in a statement to The Hill on Monday that he thought her “loony lies and conspiracy theories” were a “cancer for the Republican Party.” But it’s also possible that McConnell and other members of the Republican establishment are just out of touch with where the party is headed.
What do these two very different calls for action in the House tell us about the direction the GOP is headed and Trump’s continued influence in the party?
lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think it tells us that the party is deeply torn between two theories of how they win elections. One theory is that the GOP has to play to the Trump base to keep them voting, because these are the voters most likely to not show up. The other theory is that if the GOP gets too associated with the “loony” wing, they can’t win suburban districts. Both theories are probably right, which is why the party is so torn.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I am not sure what we’re seeing play out now is really about Trump specifically. Cheney’s joining the Democrats to back Trump’s impeachment is viewed as an anti-Republican/pro-Democrat action by the party’s conservative base and conservative lawmakers, so that’s Cheney’s problem. Her move also broke with the “own the libs” ethos of today’s GOP. Greene, on the other hand, at least before she officially started in Congress, went too far in the “own the libs” direction — her campaign literature showed her holding a gun and calling herself the “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”
And the GOP mainstream is somewhere between Cheney and Greene.
Kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): It seems to me that the party is trying to thread the needle, neither distancing themselves from Trump nor actively conjuring his ghost, in an effort to reap all the benefits of Trumpian politics without the pitfalls of Trump himself. And it’s understandable why. As Julia Azari wrote for FiveThirtyEight in her look at the future of the Republican Party, Trump capitalized by tapping into white grievance, and that is only going to continue.
The GOP can’t just put Trump behind them if they want to maintain voter support: 65 percent of Republicans said they were much or somewhat less likely to support a candidate who voted to impeach Trump, according to a recent survey from Echelon Insights, and a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found nearly 6 in 10 Republicans said the party should “follow Trump’s leadership” rather than move in a new direction.
The notion that support for Trump is somehow a fringe ideology or doesn’t represent the broader GOP doesn’t bear out. And, to me, Greene represents the “Trumpian with Trump” part of the equation that they may be trying to tamp down without fully censuring her.
lee.drutman: Perry’s onto an important point about the “own the libs” ethos. I haven’t seen any polling that gets at this directly, though self-identified “Trump Republicans” (those who consider themselves “mostly supporters of former President Donald Trump”) are much less likely to want to compromise with Biden than “Party Republicans” (those who consider themselves “more supporters of the Republican Party.”)
laura (Laura Bronner, quantitative editor): I thought that stat was really illuminating, Lee, especially because it shows that the split within the Democratic Party is not nearly as large as the split within the GOP — just a 10 percentage point difference compared with 30 points within the GOP. Of course, the question is about working with Biden, so that might explain some of that gap, but with Biden in power now, that difference still points to a key discrepancy about how different factions in the two parties think about the right way forward.
Kaleigh: And that split would be particularly concerning for Republicans if Trump was to make good on his threat to start a third party.
lee.drutman: Indeed, Kaleigh. According to that NBC poll, Republicans are equally split between “Trump Republicans” and “Party Republicans.”
laura: I’m somewhat skeptical of polling about a potential third party, though, which is how I feel about polling about a hypothetical party landscape in general.
sarah: More than two* parties in American politics!?! You all jest.
*Two successful parties, I should say.
Agree with Laura on this one.
lee.drutman: Well, we’re not going to get more than two successful parties until we change the way we vote. A more proportional voting system would allow those different parties to operate independently of one another. And this would be a very good thing, as I argue in my book, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.
sarah: Kaleigh, I was thinking about Julia Azari’s piece, too. On the one hand, I think Perry’s point about this not entirely being the latest loyalty test to Trump is right. Cheney’s actions just aren’t representative of where the party is (i.e., compromising with Democrats).
One question I had, though, and something Julia mentioned in her piece, was that when it comes to someone like Greene or Madison Cawthorn, another GOP member of the pro-Trump faction is that “there is still a key difference between them and Trump in terms of power and influence: A group of representatives can make up a faction of a party, but only the president serves as the party’s mouthpiece.” What do we make of that? It’s something Sen. Marco Rubio also echoed earlier today in a tweet.
That is, do we have a sense of how representative of the GOP someone like Greene is, or someone like Rep. Lauren Boebert is? Or Cawthorn?
perry: I happen to think Republicans are split in three, not two: the rule of law/very pro-democracy people (Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Cheney; Sen. Mitt Romney), the anti-democratic folks (Trump, Greene) and then a big group of people (McConnell, most other Republicans) who are fine with laws making it harder for Black people to vote but uncomfortable with more overt actions to disqualify Black people from voting, like disqualifying the results from the Detroit area, for example.
sarah: We’ve touched on it a little already, but how much data do we have on the share of Republicans who share Greene’s POV?
In other words, how big a slice of the GOP is in Greene’s faction?
lee.drutman: So, I think we need to define what Greene’s POV is.
Is it just basically supporting QAnon?
sarah: Or is it espousing anti-establishment views more broadly?
lee.drutman: If it’s just QAnon, there’s not wide support even within the GOP.
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Kaleigh: Well, according to that Echelon Insights poll I cited before, 43 percent of Republicans think Trump won the election, so this is not a small faction within the party.
lee.drutman: Similarly, 41 percent of adults who identify as Republican say QAnon is good for the country, according to a poll by Pew Research.
And about 23 percent of Republicans still said in December that they believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to an NPR/Ipsos poll.
I think the basic calculus in the Republican Party is that they are going to need these Q voters to show up.
laura: Yeah, there was also an interesting (and mildly terrifying) Ipsos poll recently that shows that when asked a series of nine true-or-false statements around misinformation, just 31 percent of Republicans got four or more correct. That’s compared with 88 percent of Democrats. So, the misinformation scourge has really taken hold of the Republican Party, particularly on election-related misinformation (i.e., whether Biden legitimately won, whether voting machines falsified votes, etc.). Just about one-fourth of Republicans gave the correct answer, though many said they didn’t know. Additionally, just 23 percent of Republicans said the Capitol rioters weren’t undercover Antifa members. And on QAnon, less than half said it was false that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
lee.drutman: I saw that too, Laura — it’s interesting what they got correct and what they didn’t.
Kaleigh: There’s also a real resistance among the right in general to reining in politicians too tightly. They reject what they see as “thought policing” and gatekeeping on the left and consider it a source of pride that there is room for a wide breadth of ideology within the Republican Party as part of its “big tent” branding. So, even voters who reject QAnon might not want to see QAnon supporters rejected wholesale. And this is something that party leaders like McCarthy might lean on if pressed about why they aren’t censuring Greene more explicitly, for example.
The risk is that leaning into the Q contingent will push away more centrist conservatives, which is why I think Republicans are starting off with a kind of quiet acceptance rather than an embrace or rejection of these ideas — they don’t want to scare off either end of the spectrum.
lee.drutman: Another thing about Q supporters is that they are generally very anti-establishment. It can be difficult to distinguish between the Q conspiracy and generally anti-establishment views.
Kaleigh: And QAnon is a very a-la-carte kind of conspiracy! You can believe parts of it and disbelieve others and still feel like a part of that overall community.
sarah: Yeah, it’s hard for me to make sense of a lot of this polling. This was published by The New York Times’s Emily Badger long before the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, so keep that in mind, but there does seem to be some evidence that Republicans don’t always literally mean what they say in polls.
That is obviously fraught, because we saw what four years of taking Trump seriously and not literally culminated in; however, I do think Greene’s POV is one that is more anti-establishment than core conservative policies, and that is gaining traction in the party.
The Morning Consult poll showing that Cheney’s and McConnell’s favorability is down among Republican voters should be taken as a sign of where large sections of the GOP base are headed. And maybe that’s a sign that the GOP establishment types, like Cheney and McConnell, are increasingly out of touch.
Lee wrote last summer that there were already very few moderate GOP members left, and with high-profile retirements of GOP moderates like Pat Toomey and Rob Portman in the Senate, it does seem as if that wing of the party is shrinking. How does the current battle over Cheney and Greene in the House encapsulate this?
perry: The anti-establishment wing was already big and growing in the electorate. I think they are now growing increasingly big in the House. The Freedom Caucus is larger, for instance. And in my view, McCarthy is really limited in how he can take on Greene because the House members aren’t really inclined to do that. The members who rejected the election results are pretty anti-establishment, and they are the majority. But in the Senate, the anti-establishment wing hasn’t taken over yet, so you have lots of senators defending Cheney and opposed to Greene.
I think the Romney wing (anti-Trumpism) is smaller than the Greene wing (very pro-Trumpism) on the Hill, but the Rubio/McConnell wing (more generic Republicans) is way bigger than each of those other two.
lee.drutman: But the anti-establishment wing is growing in the Senate. If you look at who supported overturning the election, it was a lot of recently elected Republicans (either in ’20 or ’18): Tommy Tuberville, Rick Scott, Roger Marshall, Cindy Hyde-Smith, Josh Hawley, Cynthia Lummis. Ted Cruz has been around a little longer, though, as has John Kennedy.
sarah: Democrats in the House will now push the situation with Greene to a floor vote to strip her of committee assignments. Is this a risky move for Democrats?
One thing I’m struggling with is how this is substantively different from what happened to former Rep. Steve King — other than the fact that he made those comments while he was a congressman.
lee.drutman: Well, one big difference is that stripping King of a committee assignment was more significant, since he was on the Agriculture Committee, which meant a lot to his Iowa constituents. My sense is that Greene, though, could care less about committee work, and so stripping her of committee assignments will only make her more powerful as an anti-establishment figure.
perry: The most important thing McCarthy has done, at this point, is meet with Trump in Florida. It was the opposite of a power move. It was basically kissing the ring and almost suggesting Trump is the boss of the House Republicans.
I find these “what Democrats should be doing” discussions kind of hard to have. If the other party is heading in an anti-democratic direction, they don’t have a lot of great choices. Ignoring the behavior could lead to more of it, and condemning it creates the risk of tit-for-tat, but I think we are well past this now. Republicans have suggested they’ll go after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s committee assignments, but it’s not just that Omar has to worry about congressional Republicans taking her off committees if they have the majority — she has to worry about them also encouraging their supporters to kill her right now, as does fellow Squad member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The remarkable thing about where we are now is that Cheney has been doing some outreach to fellow Republicans about her vote to impeach Trump, trying to rebuild whatever goodwill she might have lost. Greene, on the other hand, is not backtracking at all.
laura: My impression is that after Jan. 6, there may have been somewhat of a potential opening: For a while there, even a substantial chunk of Republicans were shocked about the Capitol riot, and it seemed to me at least that they were more willing to consider how that event was tied to the party itself: Right after the riot, 39 percent of Republicans thought their own party was on the wrong track, and 36 percent disapproved of Trump’s handling of the situation.
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perry: You mean GOP voters or members?
laura: I mean voters — in polls at least, many seemed to express shock. But also, just 17 percent of Republicans in our tracker of public opinion said they supported Trump’s impeachment when we launched. That dipped some, but not much.
But I’m thinking GOP members of Congress, too. Cheney is a prominent example.
lee.drutman: Laura, I admire your capacity for hope post-Jan. 6.
I think what’s happening here, though, is an example of elite leadership operating on public opinion. Following Jan. 6, enough Republican leaders were expressing criticism that some Republican got the idea that there was enough support to say they support impeachment.
perry: It seems like members — McConnell, in particular — saw Jan. 6 as a way to break not only from Trump but from the kind of “own the libs” style of the party. But the party’s base and its activist core wasn’t there then (and isn’t there now). In fact, McConnell faced an effort in Kentucky to have him rebuked in a GOP party resolution. There was also an effort to start primarying the members who voted for impeachment.
And the activists seem to have succeeded in getting the party leaders to back off from any real change.
sarah: And now that elite GOP criticism is more muted, we see a dip in public opinion, as Laura said?
lee.drutman: Exactly. Once Republicans got in line, Republican voters followed the elite cues.
sarah: So where does that leave us with the upcoming impeachment trial? Is it the latest litmus test of GOP support for Trump? Or is that the wrong way to think about it? And how does it tie into these issues we’re seeing play out in the House over Cheney and Greene?
perry: So I think the story is party activists/Fox News pushing members to back off any rethinking about moving on from Trump or Trumpism. Then members got voters to stop rethinking — that sequencing is important.
McCarthy is less powerful than Fox News, in short.
lee.drutman: That seems exactly right, Perry.
It seems as if everybody just wants to be over and done with the impeachment trial, and as a result, it will go somewhat quickly. Democrats have their agenda to pass, and Republicans don’t want to have to dwell on anything potentially divisive within their party. The sooner they can get to rediscovering the importance of “fiscal responsibility,” the happier they will be.
laura: In looking at polls on average support for the impeachment trial, one interesting thing that stood out to me is that there is greater support for barring Trump from office — around 57 percent overall support that — compared with convicting him (51 percent support this). And that split exists among Republicans, too: 19 percent support barring him from office, compared with 12 percent who support convicting him.
Of course, it’s unclear — and unlikely — that Trump can actually be barred from office absent a conviction.
perry: The impeachment trial has already happened on the conservative side.
The party activists balked at the idea of convicting Trump, the party leaders heard that and quickly found a position that accommodated the base’s activists: A president can’t be convicted after he leaves office.
But I don’t think this is necessarily a show of support for Trump — impeachment was a way for the libs to own the conservatives, and the GOP was never going to let that happen.
Kaleigh: I concur. Any Democrats with dreams of this impeachment trial being anything more than a repeat of Trump’s last impeachment trial are going to be disappointed.
sarah: On that note, are there any bigger implications or takeaways if impeachment fails for the second time in the Senate?
lee.drutman: Now that Republicans have latched onto a theory that this impeachment is somehow unconstitutional, they can shake their finger at Trump’s actions and distance themselves from it but still say this would set a bad precedent, that voters have already made their choice, that we should move on, etc. Democrats know this so they just want to put stuff in the historical record for posterity.
laura: In the 2019 impeachment trial, by the end of the process, 61 percent of voters thought impeachment was a bad use of time — including 37 percent of Democrats. One can only imagine that share would be even higher now that Trump’s survival in office is no longer at stake.
perry: I don’t expect we will have future presidents incite riots at the Capitol or encourage foreign nations to investigate their political rivals, so I don’t think we can draw much from these Trump episodes. The Democrats basically had to impeach him in both instances. Those were very serious offenses.
Kaleigh: I agree with Lee that there’s this fatigue among the general public. After the election, the pandemic still upending everyone’s lives, and the economy, I think the average citizen might not want to have to think about anything “big” like impeachment right now…as depressing as that is for politics reporters.
lee.drutman: A lot will happen over the next two years. By the time of the next election, and by the time of the next Republican presidential primary, what’s happening now will be a distant memory.
sarah: But the divisions we’re seeing play out in the Republican Party won’t be.
lee.drutman: Maybe, maybe not. Once the Democrats start passing legislation, Republicans can unite in opposing it, just like they did in 2009-2010.