vision 2020

Will Impeachment Matter in the Presidential Race?

Always embattled. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Impeachment has been the top story in Washington for weeks, but it has never topped voters’ list of priorities. And with the trial of President Trump likely to be over and done with in early 2020, will the issue resonate at all on the campaign trail next fall? I asked national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti and political columnist Ed Kilgore for their thoughts.

Ben: After a brief period in which independents seemed to sour on impeachment, polling numbers for the process have returned to looking a lot — though not exactly — like President Trump’s approval numbers, as Ed wrote today. One caveat: Quinnipiac’s numbers on Tuesday afternoon looked less favorable for Democrats. With a trial looming in early 2020, at which the president will presumably be acquitted, and with partisan divisions around impeachment fully hardened, will this even still count as a campaign issue by the time the general-election battle gets going next year?

Gabriel: Well, if the process is fully wrapped up by then and we’re looking at an impeached — but not removed from office — Trump, it’s hard to see how, or why, candidates would talk about it too much absent new information coming to light. But that doesn’t mean this process won’t shape some of the electorate’s view of the president and it won’t be a powerful piece of evidence in the public’s thinking about him. It would just be pretty out of character for Democratic candidates to start talking about the impeachment hearings specifically after they’re over. In the Democrats’ ideal world, of course, “impeachment” is not an issue — Trump’s conduct is, and the impeachment is an outgrowth of that. That could change, of course, if the Senate trial goes sideways or we hear more on the House side in the next few weeks.

Ed: At this point, it looks like sentiment on impeachment is lining up to track partisanship and general support for, or opposition to, Trump and everything about him. So it (or the underlying issues) will be used to lash each party’s base into a turnout frenzy, but it’s unclear whether it will all matter to persuadable swing voters who, by and large, may not be following the show. There does remain the problem, which we haven’t heard much about lately, that impeachment will make it very difficult for Democratic candidates, the Democratic nominee, and Democratic voters to subordinate criticism of Trump’s conduct and character to their positive issue messaging. Those who think HRC lost because of too much focus on Trump ought to be worried about that.

Gabriel: Sure, though here I’ll throw in the obligatory observation that few candidates these days base their pitches around Trump’s conduct when they’re actually making their case to early-state voters, though they do mention it (sometimes at length). Hard to see that changing unless something changes significantly in D.C.

Ed: Early-state primary voters are virtually all for Trump’s impeachment. It may be different in a general-election environment.

Ben: There was a fear among many Democrats that if they had impeached Trump over the Mueller Report revelations, voters might view the party as somehow obsessed with taking down the president on any pretext. Of course, Trump and his allies are making that argument now amid an inquiry based on much more damning violations. Do you see Trump’s persecution-complex argument breaking through at all next year, especially with impeachment (presumably) in the rearview mirror?

Gabriel: Republicans were making that argument before the impeachment inquiry, and they started previewing it as soon as Trump won. It’s a central part of Trump’s pitch, so I’d be very surprised to see it go away just because the formal inquiry is over, especially if Trump now has to campaign as an impeached president.

Ed: Well, there’s also going to be the exoneration claim, and if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, whatever charges against him Republicans manage to raise (they’re already doing it, obviously) during the impeachment process.

Ben: One element of this that hasn’t gotten a ton of attention is that vulnerable senators up for election next year will have to cast a very consequential vote. Might this end up mattering much more for very endangered Republicans, like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, and the very endangered Democrats — there’s really only one, Doug Jones — than it will for anyone involved in the presidential race?

Ed: Well, if it does wind up crucially affecting the presidential outcome in November, then that blots out the sky, in my opinion. But sure: This vote will consummate the pressure on vulnerable Senate incumbents to stay with or split from their party.

Gabriel: I’d be very surprised if Collins or Gardner broke from the GOP — they’re highly unlikely to win many crossover Dems in such a polarized year and will need 100 percent of their states’ Republicans behind them — but they’ll absolutely be under pressure. Same with Thom Tillis in North Carolina, for example. No matter what they signal to their voters or party leaders, they’ll be at the center of the storm. Same is true for Jones but quadruply so because he’s by far the most vulnerable Democrat, in one of Trump’s strongest states. He may feel real pressure to break from his party.

The GOP senators to watch, I think, are the ones with few short-term political pressures on them, like retiring Lamar Alexander or Mitt Romney, who’s not up for reelection until 2024 and is unlikely to get much in-state blowback anyway. But they’re not really relevant in terms of 2020 ads or pressure campaigns.

Ed: Or even impeachment, frankly, unless there are some procedural maneuvers that require Republican solidarity. It would take 20 Republican defections to remove Trump from office, of course.There aren’t enough lame ducks or has-beens to get to that number.

Gabriel: How about has-ducks? Any of those?

Ed: I guess we do have to keep reminding ourselves, though, that along with whatever the impeachment investigation may reveal, Trump could easily commit some additional and even more blatant impeachable offenses before the trial. It’s not like he’s exercising any caution, and he may actually be incapable of doing so. I still don’t think there’s much of anything that would get him removed from office, but it’s possible it would be dicier if he proves he is not only remorseless but incorrigible.

Ben: I disagree. I think he’ll pivot to being more presidential.

Ed: Haha. Yeah, right about the time he releases his infrastructure proposal.

Will Impeachment Matter in the Presidential Race?