When it comes to impeaching President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi hits back at Trump over letter: ‘Only the latest attempt to cover up his betrayal of our democracy’ Trump directed Perry, State Dept. officials to talk to Giuliani on Ukraine: report Murkowski warns against rushing to conclusions on Trump impeachment MORE, it’s impossible to separate the political from the factual. Unlike a jury trial where private citizens make their decision with no incentives or consequences, the “jury” for impeachment is composed of members of Congress who cast their vote in public and then must deal with the electoral consequences. How impeachment plays out will be driven by the electoral math each member calculates.
What is the most salient factor in impeachment? Democratic voters detest Donald Trump. According to the Economist poll (the most recent benchmark poll with issue approval) Democrats disapprove Trump 89 percent to 9 percent and support impeachment 83 percent to 8 percent. While Democratic disapproval of Trump is hardly new, the depth of their loathing is remarkable. On every issue polled, Democratic voters disapprove of Trump’s policies by over 50 points. For the top five issues (health care, environment, gun control, the economy and social security) disapproval averaged 80 percent. Trump’s strong point is clearly the economy, yet 76 percent of Democrats still disapproved.
House Democrats will have to face this angry electorate in party primary races within the year. Historically incumbents have rarely been defeated in primaries. Since 1946, the highest incidence of primary losses was 5 percent. But Democrats now have an energetic faction actively challenging insufficiently progressive incumbents. Justice Democrats has already endorsed six primary challengers. While Republicans have been dealing with ideological primary threats for the last 20 years, this is new territory for the Democrats. And, just as with the Republican Party, the more hardcore ideologues have acquired power beyond what the general electorate would support. Ironically, strident support of impeachment might be the path for centrist Democrats to beat back progressive challengers.
Given this level of animus, it should be no surprise that a significant faction of House Democrats wanted to impeach Trump even before they could articulate the charges against him. Now that the Ukraine phone call provides the basis for charges, practically the entire Democratic caucus is now in favor of impeachment.
Initially, eleven Democrats in the House remained undecided on impeachment (three have since come out in favor). All are in districts rated as Republican-leaning by the Cook Political Report, and nine are first-termers who flipped GOP seats. Cook rates each district as a “tossup” with the exception of Wisconsin-3. Given the polling and momentum for impeachment, it seems likely that all of these Democrats will eventually support or at least vote for impeachment. The sole exception would be Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) who is defending an R+31 district that Trump won solidly. Since you can’t stay in Congress unless you get your party’s nomination, even Democrats in Republican-leaning districts will have a hard time defying their own partisans. Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathMass shootings have hit 158 House districts so far this year Ossoff raises 0k in first three weeks of Senate bid, campaign says Here are the House Democrats who aren’t backing Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Ga.) and Rep. Max RoseMax RoseNY Rep. Max Rose backs impeachment inquiry Parkland survivor Lauren Hogg implores Congress to do more on school shootings Here are the House Democrats who aren’t backing Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-N.Y.) all recently moved to the impeachment camp.
Meanwhile, Republicans have stuck with the president and show no signs of temporizing. GOP voters are the mirror-opposite of Democrats in their view of Trump. Trump enjoys an over 50-point approval advantage overall and in all issues. Among the top five issues (immigration, economy, terrorism, social security and health care) Trump averages an 83 percent approval. In spite of a trillion-dollar plus deficit, Trump has a 75 percent approval rating on the deficit. Not surprisingly, GOP voters oppose impeachment 76 percent to 11 percent.
Given GOP voter support for Trump and the fact that not a single House Republican represents a Democratic-leaning district, no House Republican is likely to support impeachment. Only retiring members might consider it. In the Senate, 19 Republicans are up for re-election — so, none of them will defect. The balance of GOP Senators has a few years to recover.
Of all Republican Senators, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPolls flash warning signs for Trump on impeachment Administration to give ‘top secret’ briefing on Syria amid pushback Why aren’t Democrats weaponizing Fox News on impeachment? MORE is in the best political position to oppose Trump. Not only does Romney have five more years to his term to recover from any political damage, but Utah was the weakest state for Trump among the solid Republican states. Trump won with only 45 percent, the lowest percentage since 1992, when Perot managed to edge Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump defends Turkey amid fierce criticism | Senators demand briefing on Syria decision | Turkey confirms strikes on Syrian border | White House says it won’t cooperate on impeachment inquiry Mellman: Learning from impeachments past McConnell blasts House Democrats over handling of impeachment inquiry MORE for second place (George H.W. Bush won with 43 percent). Romney not only ran over 17 points better than Trump, he handily won the GOP primary, 72 percent to 28 percent even though he narrowly lost at the Republican endorsement convention.
The wild card for impeachment remains where independent voters end up. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a majority on their own. Whether it is the presidency or control of Congress (particularly the Senate), swing independent voters are key for ultimate control. At the time of this writing, independents only barely support impeachment at 36 percent to 34 percent with 29 percent undecided.
For Democrats to win on impeachment in the general election they will need to convince independents that impeachment is legitimate. They must present a convincing case against Trump. If the process turns on grandstanding and degenerates into a morass of endless half-baked accusations, then Trump wins.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. He earned his PhD in public policy from University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711