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Will Impeachment Reshape the 2020 Race?

AWalter Head
September 26, 2019

There are very few constants in life, but one thing we can count on these days is the consistency of Trump's approval ratings; they are the most stable in modern history. At his lowest point, the president has never dipped below 35 percent, but even on his best days, his approval ratings haven't broken 46 percent. From fights about inauguration size to stories of a soaring stock market to the outrage over Charlottesville and the release of the Mueller report, Trump's approval ratings have remained incredibly stable. So, why should we think that an impeachment inquiry — and possible impeachment — will upset this balance?

I chatted with a number of Democratic strategists and Hill folk this week. While they were wary of the political repercussions of impeachment, they do think it is very different from where things stood during Mueller. The Russia/Mueller saga was too complicated, they argue, and had too many players and angles to follow. The Ukraine situation, they think, is much more straightforward: the president abused the office to pursue his own personal political agenda. The Russia/Mueller probe looked backward, while the Ukraine situation is happening in real-time. The Mueller report would punish the president for things he did in the past. This will stop the president from continuing this bad behavior.

Moreover, one Democratic strategist noted that many of the Democrats who won in GOP-held seats in 2018 and who, until now, had held out against impeachment, ran implicitly on a message of putting a check on the president. Re-litigating 2016 was not a 'check' on the president. They ran as outsiders and corruption fighters who refused campaign donations from corporations and accused their GOP opponents of being underwritten by special interests.

In that vein, Democratic strategist Rich Davis says:

Democrats must frame this at all times as "fighting corruption," not "impeaching the president." Corruption is the crime; impeachment is merely the sad punishment. When cops respond to a bank robbery, dust for prints, collect DNA evidence, interview witnesses, then go outside to answer reporters' questions — they do not say, "We're investigating a prosecution. We're investigating sentencing." No. They say, "We're investigating a robbery. We're investigating a crime." It makes no sense for Democrats or the media to continue framing this as "an impeachment investigation." The media likely won't stop, but Democrats should stop accepting and repeating that frame. Democrats must be the anti-corruption party, not the pro-impeachment one. Few Americans love impeachment; most Americans hate corruption.

But, keeping on-message is really tough in a fast-moving environment like we are in now. It's made even tougher when up against President Trump, who has an uncanny ability to throw even the most disciplined candidates off balance.

There are other Democrats, however, who fear that this is making things harder for their party in 2020. I bumped into a Democratic pollster the other day who lamented the decision by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move forward with an inquiry. Why put the focus on the dysfunction that is Washington, this person said, instead of keeping it solely on Trump? Or as one GOP consultant — one who has been consistently pessimistic about Trump's chances in 2020 — told me: "If they [Democrats] would just shut the f-up, they'd win everything" in 2020. What people dislike about Trump, said this GOPer, is the tweeting and the chaos. But, voters also hate watching Washington get paralyzed by partisan warfare.

Then there's the question of what it does to the fight for the Democratic nomination. Vice President Biden's strongest asset is his perceived ability to beat Trump. Although his lead in the national polls has been shrinking, Biden is still seen as the most 'electable' of Democratic candidates. For example, Biden's overall lead has shrunk from almost 30 points when he jumped into the race this spring, to just seven points now. Even so, the most recent surveys from Quinnipiac, Fox News, and ABC/Washington Post, show him with a substantial 25 to 37 point lead on the question of who has the best chance to beat Trump. The question now is, does the fact that Biden (and his son, Hunter), play such a prominent role in this saga take the shine off his 'electability' argument?

The Biden camp argues that Trump's single-minded focus on digging up dirt on the former VP is a sign that the president sees Biden as his most formidable foe. I'm not convinced that is how Democrats will see this. Yes, having the president pick on you is a good way to rally the Democratic base behind you. But, it also has the possibility of triggering a sort-of political PTSD for Democratic primary voters — call it "but, her emails" 2.0. During Biden's tenure as vice president, even members of the Obama administration were "worried that his son's work for the energy company, Burisma Holdings, could create at least the perception of a conflict of interest." And, for a candidate who has a very long history in Washington, it also reminds voters of the many skeletons that have yet to be uncovered.

But, the focus on impeachment isn't all that great for Warren, either. For the last couple of weeks, she has been the center of the political universe. The media has been almost singularly focused on her; her big crowds, her lead in new polls out of Iowa and New Hampshire. For now, she is stuck in the impeachment's shadow.

We are too early into the impeachment process to have any real idea of where it's landing with voters. I wouldn't put a lot of faith in any polling on impeachment that comes out this week. I understand the appetite to have data to prove/disprove one's theory that this week has "CHANGED EVERYTHING." But, what polls ask voters about today could be very different from what we are talking about in a week or two.

It's also unsatisfying to look to history as a guide. The mythology surrounding the 1998 impeachment still drives a lot of the conventional wisdom today. That thinking goes like this: Republicans pushed an unpopular impeachment and paid for it at the polls. But, it's not 1998 anymore. We are a much more polarized country than we were back then. Partisans are less willing to give the opposite party credit for things going well, and more willing to support their own party when things turn sour. We also know that this president is more unpopular than President Clinton was at any point during his impeachment.

We are a deeply divided, deeply polarized country. Almost everything we do — from choosing where to eat lunch (Chick-fil-A vs. Whole Foods), to the way we view those who live in a area of the country that's different from ours is filtered through the lens of how we identify politically. As such, we shouldn't expect views of impeachment to be any different. Opinions won't swing wildly from day to day or week to week. We also shouldn't expect to see Americans overwhelming support or overwhelmingly oppose impeachment. Like everything in this era, the final verdict on impeachment is likely to be decided on the margins by voters who are holding conflicting views on the president and the process of impeachment. It will be decided by those who may dislike Trump, but are also frustrated by the paralysis in Washington, or those who may like the agenda of the president, but are troubled by his behavior.

Image: White House protests Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster