Partisanship Meets Trump’s Impeachment

History shows that if those pushing for impeachment and removal want to succeed, they need to drive up popular support for a senate conviction.

Expert comment Updated 4 November 2020 Published 19 December 2019 2 minute READ

Lindsay Newman

Former Senior Research Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

Opposing protests during the House of Representatives debate on whether to charge President Donald Trump with two articles of impeachment. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.

Opposing protests during the House of Representatives debate on whether to charge President Donald Trump with two articles of impeachment. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.

The vote to impeach Donald Trump holds almost no surprises - on both the abuse of power and obstruction of congress articles, the votes were split entirely on party lines with nearly all the majority-led House Democrats but not a single Republican voting to impeach Trump.

However, this ‘pre-ordained’ outcome of the House impeachment inquiry does serve to highlight that the US is in the midst of a hyper-partisan political moment. Policy gridlock has led to two government shutdowns during Donald Trump’s presidency, with one further budgetary fight narrowly avoided.

With a few notable exceptions (such as USMCA), policy areas that lend themselves to bipartisanship - including infrastructure and drug pricing - have seen very little progress under divided congressional chambers. Party identification can now be overlaid with the cable news channel one watches or the newspaper one reads.

Impeachment now moves to the Senate for a trial, requiring a two-thirds majority of the Republican-led senate (or 67 senators) for a conviction. Given the congressional partisanship we are seeing, the baseline scenario continues to be that the senate will not vote to convict Trump and remove him from office - despite much being made of how many senators are likely to vote for a Senate conviction.

Why public opinion could be crucial

There is another story to keep a close eye on. The number to track is 47.2 – the current polling average of public support for Trump’s impeachment. Polling averages from the end of September 2019 (before the hearings began, but after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal inquiry) had 49.4% supporting impeachment versus 47.2% this week.

Here’s why this number matters. If those pushing for impeachment and removal are unable to drive popular support across a critical threshold level, then those against impeachment and removal are not going to abandon the president and vote for a senate conviction. With Trump consistently polling in the low 40s on job approval, but in the high 80s/low 90s within the Republican party, this means Republican congress members concerned about re-election are extremely hesitant to distance themselves from him without a clear mandate from the domestic public.

A tale of the two most recent presidents to face impeachment underscores this point. Gallup polling claimed 58% of adults supported impeaching and removing President Richard Nixon from office in August 1974, whereas only 35% of the public supported impeaching President Bill Clinton in December 1998, the month he was impeached.

Given the respective outcomes of those two impeachments, it suggests public support for impeachment and removal needs to increase well beyond the current 47.2%, to avoid the foregone conclusion of acquittal in the Senate (even if there are signs of the tide moving in the opposite direction with those against impeachment overtaking support for the first time in December).

What does this mean for Democrats?

In the short term, if the Democrats want to make inroads into the hearts and minds of those across the partisan gulf, it will be critical to secure senate testimony from those in Trump’s inner circle at the time of the Ukrainian affair.

After Trump ordered individuals with first-hand knowledge of the administration’s efforts vis-à-vis Ukraine not to testify, House investigators were unable to call many witnesses with direct evidence (which in fact left the House testimony exposed to Republican claims of hearsay). With Trump impeached, more of the public is likely to tune in to the senate proceedings, and direct evidence by inner circle administration officials required to testify presents an opportunity to move public opinion.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi recognizes how crucial the procedures and participants for the senate trial will be, and has said she could delay sending the articles of impeachment to the senate as leverage for a ‘fair trial’.

Democrats also have to consider how an impeachment inquiry that - at least from this vantage point - does not end in a conviction of the president plays out for the 2020 election campaign, especially if this also likely means that public opinion - and certainly Republican-party views - of Trump have not shifted.