Democrats moved a step closer to impeaching President Trump on Tuesday, but the jury remains out as to whether the party will glean political benefits from the move.
Democrats have some grounds for optimism, now that the House Intelligence Committee has released its report and articles of impeachment look almost inevitable.
Opinion polls show solid support for the impeachment inquiry itself, even though the public is more tepid about removing Trump from office.
The evidence heard before the Intelligence panel last month — particularly from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Fiona Hill, a former Russian specialist at the National Security Council — was widely viewed as damaging for Trump.
Some Democrats also argue that the moral case for impeaching Trump transcends any political calculation.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), the first member of Congress to unambiguously call for the president’s impeachment, told The Hill on Tuesday, “We cannot be guided by the polls on some issues. On some issues, you have to do what conscience tells you is right.”
When Green first pushed his preferred course, he was met with considerable skepticism from members of his own party, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The skeptics were worried about the political ramifications of an intense and polarizing fight over impeachment.
Those dangers have not vanished.
Trump’s approval ratings have barely budged since Pelosi announced her support for impeachment over the president’s dealings with Ukraine on Sept. 24.
In the polling averages calculated by both RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight, the total number of Americans disapproving of Trump was, at the start of this week, within two-tenths of a percentage point of where it had been the day before Pelosi’s announcement.
The president’s political and media allies have been hitting the impeachment inquiry since its inception.
On Tuesday, America First, the largest pro-Trump independent group, announced a $2 million ad buy targeting House members in key districts.
The group insisted that its polling had shown that “constituents in these districts oppose impeachment, and overwhelmingly want Congress to stop wasting their time and taxpayer money on this partisan witch-hunt.”
While a pro-Trump group might be expected to sing that tune, there has also been unease expressed by a small number of Democrats.
Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.), one of just two members of his party to vote against the impeachment process at the end of October, told USA Today in a recent interview that Trump would be able to claim “exoneration” even if he is impeached, so long as he is acquitted by the Senate — which is all but certain.
“I say to folks sometimes: Watch what you wish for,” Van Drew said.
Republicans see the impeachment process as having a minimal electoral effect, especially given how polarized the nation has become over politics generally and Trump specifically.
The process so far “has further cemented feelings,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill. “If you were anti-Trump before, you are anti-Trump now; and if you were pro-Trump before you are pro-Trump now. It hasn’t changed the arc of the story one iota.”
Numerous polls have shown that there is greater public support for impeachment now than there had been at any point during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into allegations of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
A Reuters poll late last month indicated that 47 percent of adults believed Trump should be impeached against 40 percent who said he should not.
A Quinnipiac Poll found a firm majority of registered voters approving of the inquiry itself (54 percent to 42 percent) but a slimmer plurality against Trump’s removal from office (48 percent opposed, to 45 percent in favor).
In terms of the 2020 elections, much will hinge on independent voters. There, the evidence is mixed. The Reuters poll found independents firmly against Trump’s impeachment, 46 percent to 36 percent. But an Economist poll conducted almost simultaneously found 38 percent of independents in favor of impeachment and 36 percent against.
Some Democrats argued, too, that the full political effects of impeachment could not be measured by polling figures alone.
Democratic strategist Robert Shrum said that there was “conventional wisdom that it is a loser — and that’s wrong.”
Shrum argued that people were incorrectly interpreting the parallels with the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton.
Shrum asserted that, far from backfiring on Republicans, the process had helped set the agenda for the 2000 presidential election, which Clinton’s vice president Al Gore lost to George W. Bush.
“An impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate could hurt [Trump] badly,” Shrum argued.
Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University argued that even at this stage, the political effect of impeachment was simply unknowable.
“On paper, you would say it has to hurt him and there are public opinion data that back that up,” Reeher said. “But there are different ways this might be spun that we can’t predict right now. It could be that this mobilizes a set of voters in a way that helps Trump.”
For advocates of impeachment like Green, however, that is simply not the point.
“I have been very consistent in saying that this was about principle and that we have to put principles above our party,” the Texas congressman said. “We have to put our country above the politics.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.