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Will The Results Of The Mueller Investigation Matter In 2020?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is at long last over. After nearly two years, we have a summary of Mueller’s report from Attorney General William Barr, and that summary, in a letter to Congress, says that the Trump campaign did not coordinate with Russia. What’s less clear is where Mueller landed on the question of obstruction of justice: Barr’s summary says that the special counsel didn’t reach a conclusion, and we still don’t have the report.

This means we can expect a political fight until the full report is released, but how should House Democrats proceed in light of what information we do have? And how this could affect the 2020 election?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I don’t think it will affect 2020. None of the Democratic candidates was really hammering the Trump-Russia thing. And it doesn’t seem to be a major focus with voters either. In a recent CNN poll, respondents were asked to name what issue will be the most important to them in deciding whom to support in 2020, but not a single respondent mentioned the Russia investigation. And as for the campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren recently said to reporters that she wasn’t getting questions on the Mueller report from voters during events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

sarahf: I don’t know if it’s quite fair to say that 2020 candidates haven’t hammered the Trump-Russia thing at all. Beto O’Rourke did accuse President Trump of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election in a speech he gave on Saturday (before Barr’s letter was public).

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Are you saying that it won’t affect the 2020 general election? Or the 2020 Democratic primary?

nrakich: The primary.

There’s more of a chance it affects the general election. But attitudes do seem pretty baked in at this point.

natesilver: On the primary, I tend to agree, although the counter-factual where Mueller finds some huge smoking gun … it seems like things might be different then. At the very least, Democrats would have to stake out a clearer position on impeachment.

It is somewhat telling that none of the 2020 candidates had made the special counsel investigation a particular focus of their campaigns. Maybe you have someone like Beto who has talked about it, or maybe even said a few things he might consider walking back, but it’s not like it’s “Beto O’Rourke, the Russia candidate.”

Eric Swalwell sort of has tried to run on that in the invisible primary, and there doesn’t seem to be much interest in his campaign.

And Michael Avenatti was sort of running on that basis before he encountered … uh … other problems. And there wasn’t much of an appetite for an Avenatti campaign either, with him polling at 1 percent or so back when he was included in surveys.

nrakich: Yeah. Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 won largely by running on bread-and-butter issues, like health care. The 2020 candidates understand that.

And speaking of health care, Trump may have already stepped on his good-news surge from the Mueller report by bringing up Obamacare repeal again.

natesilver: Yeah. I mean, there’s just sort of so much that Trump is putting into the washing machine that both good stories and bad ones sort of all come out in the wash. (I think I butchered that metaphor.)

It’s not crazy to think that the Affordable Care Act could be more consequential to 2020 than the Mueller report. I don’t think I think that, but it’s not crazy. Rank-and-file voters care a lot about health care.

sarahf: But don’t you think that if House Democrats continue to pursue an investigation-heavy agenda, they risk alienating voters?

natesilver: I mean, I think the Michael Cohen testimony was fairly effective for Democrats. It was pointed and dramatic, and it took a day, rather than dragging on for months.

nrakich: And there are other investigations of Trump going on, including those over allegations of campaign-finance and emoluments clause violations.

natesilver: So, like, Democrats have to pick their shots. And maybe the threshold is higher, post-Mueller. But I don’t get the notion that they can’t pick their shots fairly effectively. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to have pretty good control of her caucus.

sarahf: But I guess that’s my question. Will the American public have the same appetite for those investigations? Or do Democrats risk their investigations being viewed in too partisan of a light?

nrakich: I just don’t know that it will matter one way or the other.

natesilver: Remember that the Mueller report itself has not been released. And even though I’m quite skeptical that what’s in the Muller report can be that much worse for Trump than what’s in Barr’s summary, it will affect public perceptions quite a bit if Republicans are slow to release the Mueller report.

sarahf: That’s true — that could work in the Democrats’ favor. (House Democrats have demanded the Justice Department turn over the full report by April 2.)

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Some of the Democrats in Congress are suggesting that the party should broadly back off of Trump-related investigations (not just the Russia probe) and focus more on policy. I think that’s an important internal debate where there will be different views in the caucus. Some members from purple/red districts have never been that excited about an anti-Trump focus, and I assume that the Mueller report news from last weekend will push them even further in that direction.

nrakich: Perry, I would agree with that if I were advising a presidential candidate, but I’m not sure that it’s going to matter what Congress does.

natesilver: Part of me wonders whether House Democrats will investigate Trump more than they “should” in the sense of it being politically optimal just because they have a lot of time on their hands.

They can’t really pass much legislation that’s going to get through the Senate and through Trump. But they sure as hell can investigate.

nrakich: It’s pretty normal for the House to ramp up the investigations under divided government.

And just glancing at the data, it doesn’t seem that the party in control of the House at that time suffered political consequences for it later on.

The strength of the candidates at the top of the ticket is probably what’s going to dictate if those red-district Democrats keep their seats in 2020.

perry: I do think the “release the report” argument from Democrats is important. Media reports that Trump tried to stop or stall the investigation are different from an official Justice Department report saying it and giving lots of details.

I think the Democrats can only gain from the Mueller report’s release. I’m not saying that it will change anyone’s vote in 2020 necessarily, but it will be useful for the Democrats to have the details out there.

sarahf: But OK, what does this mean for Republicans? How will they use the investigation in 2020?

perry: One way to look at it is that the results of the investigation weren’t great news for someone like Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who has been hinting that he is open to challenging Trump in a GOP presidential primary.

Not that Hogan had much of a chance to begin with, but this closes one potential avenue for a GOP challenger to Trump.

nrakich: Yeah, basically the only prayer for Bill Weld or another Republican hopeful was for Trump to be indicted, AND the economy to tank, AND the pee tape mentioned in the Steele dossier to come out … it had to be a perfect storm.

natesilver: I do want to push back at something Perry said first. Clearly, Democrats would not gain from the report being released if it’s extremely skeptical about anything resembling collusion.

perry: I felt like Barr’s summary was already pretty skeptical, so it’s hard to imagine the full report being even more skeptical.

natesilver: I just think there’s a middle ground where Barr can probably spin things a bit, but if he spins too much, it’s very risky if the report eventually gets released or if details surface through other means (i.e., leaks).

perry: In terms of the Republicans, I think Trump and his allies were going to attack the Justice Department officials who were involved in the Russia investigation and the media outlets that covered the investigative intensely no matter what. But that instinct to attack the media and the group of people who started the Russia investigation will be reinforced by this report.

I think a big part of Trump’s 2020 campaign will be an anti-institutional argument. Which he was making in 2016 too, I suppose, but the anti-media, anti-“deep state” part will be even more aggressive.

natesilver: It’s a thin line, though, for Trump to attack the media while also getting relatively friendly coverage about the Mueller report. And I’m not sure that I trust the White House to walk that line effectively. Like, I think they’ve been dunking a bit too much and not using this report to maximize their standing with swing voters.

sarahf: But just think of the chant at the rallies: NO COLLUSION!

natesilver: It will be “WITCH HUNT!!” “NO COLLUSION!!” like the old “TASTES GREAT!!” “LESS FILLING!!” commercials (dating myself here).

perry: I’m not sure this is a good election strategy. I just think it’s likely to be what happens — hating the media and the “deep state” is going to become a bigger part of GOP politics now.

natesilver: Yeah, and as I wrote a couple of days ago, Trump could stand to gain among Trump-skeptical Republicans who are also skeptical of the media.

sarahf: A key demographic to watch will also be independents and how they respond. As Nathaniel wrote previously, there was some polling that showed independents weren’t against the investigation. But I wonder if that changes or shifts now.

natesilver: Also given the timing of this … the Mueller report is coming early enough that if it had been really bad, Republicans could have considered taking an off-ramp from Trump.

But suppose, hypothetically, that there’s some new scandal. It’s going to take a lot of time to metastasize into something. And it’ll be too late for Republicans to nominate someone else for 2020, most likely.

So they’re probably fairly committed to Trump as their nominee at this point, and that’s likely to start affecting their behavior right away. Not that there was ever much of a chance that Republicans would nominate someone else, but if there was just the slightest bit of daylight, there’s less now.

perry: And you’re already seeing signs of that. Republicans like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who used to criticize Trump a lot, are now trying to portray themselves as more pro-Trump.

Will it be harder for elected Republicans to criticize Trump when he does more outlandish things? I think so.

Trump has gained more and more control of the GOP over the past two years. And I think he’s strengthened by the ending of the uncertainty that surrounded the Mueller investigation while it was underway.

natesilver: So maybe that’s the simplest effect. It will increase the degree of party unity behind Trump.

perry: Jumping back to the Democrats, there are basically two camps among the presidential candidates. One group says that Trump is bad, but the country’s problems are much broader — rooted in the unequal power that the wealthy and elites wield. (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders fall into this camp.) The other group says the problem is Trump and to some extent the Republican Party. (Most of the other candidates fall into this group.)

Because Trump has not been implicated by the Mueller investigation (at least based on Barr’s summary of the report), I think we’ll see Democratic primary candidates move toward the Warren-Sanders view. And that’s important.

I’m not sure if Warren or Sanders will win the primary, but it will be interesting to see if their broader vision takes hold within the party.

natesilver: My initial instinct, FWIW, was the opposite — that if the Mueller report has any effect (it probably/might not), it would help the more centrist candidates because Trump will be seen as more formidable now and therefore a higher premium will be placed on “electability.”

nrakich: It’s not a single spectrum, though. Perry is right that, say, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have been running more explicitly anti-Trump campaigns than Sanders and Warren have. But they’re all still lumped together as “progressive.”

natesilver: What about the Booker/Buttigieg/Beto gang, who have been running on a more upbeat, optimistic message?

perry: Electability is a huge focus of this primary. Full stop. But I also think the day-to-day exchanges in this campaign are about policy, and even people like Booker/Buttigieg/Beto

are moving toward more aggressive ideas like getting rid of the filibuster and the Electoral College.

It’s complicated. I feel like the primary is moving to the left on policy but is also really shaped by electability.

natesilver: It does seem like there are four quadrants. On the one hand, there’s “everything is going to hell” vs. “everything is going to be OK.” On the other hand, there’s “Trump is the biggest problem we’ve got” vs. “Trump is just a symptom of larger issues.”

sarahf: OK, so it sounds as though we think the effect of the Mueller report could be felt in two key ways in 2020:

  1. There will be greater party unity behind Trump, regardless of how he chooses to spin the report’s findings (and setting aside the question of whether that’s a good strategy for winning swing voters).
  2. Democratic presidential hopefuls might redirect their focus from Trump to saying the problem is bigger than Trump.

What else would you add?

nrakich: I’d just qualify No. 2 by saying that I don’t really think the Mueller report will have any effect on the primary. Primary voters are already partisan Democrats and have made up their minds about how shady Trump is.

natesilver: I don’t know. There was a mainstream media perception post-midterms, post-shutdown (Remember the shutdown? It wasn’t that long ago!) that Trump was in deep trouble and wasn’t so Teflon after all. Now you literally have headlines saying “TEFLON DON” and scoldy media people scolding other people in the media for underestimating Trump again. So the background climate changes a little bit.

Does it precipitate a change in behavior from the Democratic candidates? Maybe not.

nrakich: Yeah. Maybe it makes Democratic voters more concerned about the issue of electability in the short term. But “electability” means different things to different people. And in the long term, who knows?

natesilver: I’d just say that the Mueller news cycle already feels pretty different 48 hours later. You have some crazy stories — Avenatti, Jussie Smollett. You have the Justice Department taking a new position on Obamacare. You have this controversy over when and whether the Mueller report itself is going to be released. The news cycle moves on pretty quickly.

nrakich: Exactly.

I look forward to summer 2020 when we’re all talking about the political implications of Oprah giving every American a universal basic income.

From ABC News:

Justice Department: Version of Robert Mueller’s report to be released in weeks

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.