Will Pushing for Impeachment Make It More Popular?

The 37th and 45th presidents of the United States. Photo: Julian Wasser/Getty Images; Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

While different assessments have been made of the public-opinion trends surrounding the question of Donald Trump’s potential impeachment, nobody is at present reporting anything like majority support. Even Steve Benen’s optimistic take on trends observes that this fateful step remains pretty solidly unpopular:

CNN released the results of its new national poll, which asked respondents, “Based on what you have read or heard, do you believe that President Trump should be impeached and removed from office, or don’t you feel that way?”

In mid-March, shortly before the release of Attorney General Bill Barr’s misleading “summary” of the Mueller report, 36 percent supported impeaching Trump and removing him from office. In late April, it was 37 percent. In the results released over the weekend, that number is now up to 41 percent.

Obviously, that’s not a majority. In fact, the same CNN poll found 54 percent oppose these congressional actions against the president. But there’s been some movement of late: Since March, support for impeaching Trump is up five points, and opposition is down five points.

Most of the impeachment buzz, such as it is, is among Democrats: CNN now shows them favoring impeachment by a 76-18 margin, while independents oppose it 35-59 and Republicans by 6-93.

There’s is an argument gaining strength in pro-impeachment circles, though, that the very initiation of impeachment proceedings will likely shift public opinion in a pro-impeachment direction. Yoni Applebaum made this argument back in March:

The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what’s already known and by bringing new evidence to light. If Trump’s support among Republican voters erodes, his support in the Senate may do the same. One lesson of Richard Nixon’s impeachment is that when legislators conclude a presidency is doomed, they can switch allegiances in the blink of an eye.

Nixon’s example is also being touted by Greg Sargent after an analysis of Gallup polling data from the Watergate era:

Chart: Gallup

With support from historian Julian Zelizer, Sargent interprets these trends as showing a sort of impeachment bootstrapping effect:

[T]he jump in July 1974 came after the House Judiciary Committee launched impeachment hearings in May 1974, and the subsequent jump in August 1974 came after the Committee approved articles of impeachment in July of that year.

“It’s clear from the data that impeachment proceedings provided the jolt that shook the public, among independents in particular,” Zelizer told me. “An independent by nature is not going to make a quick decision. Impeachment proceedings and then the approval of articles of impeachment are what ended up moving independents.”

“This wasn’t Congress waiting on the public,” Zelizer added. “It was the other way around — Congress provided guidance to the public.”

The upshot, of course, is that today’s congressional Democrats can get the public support they want to move toward impeachment only by first moving toward impeachment.

Sargent acknowledges that in the current climate of partisan polarization, Republicans (whether rank-and-file or elected officials) aren’t likely to move against Trump as they eventually did against Nixon. This is a point his Washington Post colleague Phillip Bump emphasizes today, noting that Nixon never had the kind of media echo chamber Trump enjoys:

[T]here’s the issue of people actually tuning in to [impeachment] hearings. In an interview with Rolling Stone several years ago, Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean made a telling remark.

“Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today,” Dean said.

I’d add that Republicans have all but lost the moderate-to-liberal wing that lost faith with Nixon first during the Watergate saga:

[Today’s Republican] lawmakers are reminiscent of no one in the Watergate saga more than Representative Earl Landgrebe of Indiana, who famously said soon before Nixon resigned: “Don’t confuse me with facts; my mind is made up … [I’ll] stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.”

Sargent still plausibly thinks it’s possible that if independents turn on Trump as sharply as they turned against Nixon, majority support for impeachment would form. That might not significantly increase the currently nil odds of a Senate conviction of Trump but could insulate Democrats from a backlash against impeachment that would imperil their prospects of ejecting the man from office in 2020.

But I’d draw attention to another takeaway from that Gallup data about Nixon that suggests we are in a different era. Back then indie support for impeachment wasn’t that far from the level of Democratic support: just nine percent off in mid-1973, thirteen percent off in early 1974, and sixteen percent off near Nixon’s resignation. Today (again, using that CNN poll showing a slow pro-impeachment trend emanating almost entirely from Democrats) there’s a 41 point gap between Democratic and indie support for impeachment. Polarization has affected independents — who aren’t very independent any more — as much as partisans. So it’s unclear how much room there really is for any major improvement in sentiment favoring impeachment.

I’d add one concern I offered in an earlier analysis, which is difficult to prove but is relevant to comparisons between Nixon and Trump: Watergate or even impeachment proceedings weren’t the only developments driving Nixon toward the deep unpopularity he eventually experienced:

There were multiple reasons for that plunge [in Nixon’s approval ratings], including, yes, Watergate publicity (punctuated by the Saturday Night Massacre in which Nixon fired his attorney general, his deputy attorney general, and the Watergate special prosecutor), plus the resignation of his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, after being caught accepting bribes; growing public hostility to delays in ending the Vietnam War; and the beginning of a recession that interrupted a long period of economic growth. By the time Nixon was forced to resign, his approval rating overall was a terrible 24 percent and just 50 percent among Republicans.

Trump’s popularity is famously, almost uniquely impervious to external events. Perhaps impeachment proceedings will change that, but if I were Nancy Pelosi, I wouldn’t want to bet the House — or the White House — on it.

This piece originally misstated the relationship between Democratic and independent support for impeachment of Nixon. It has been corrected.

Will Impeaching Trump Make Impeaching Trump Popular?