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Will This Time Be Different?

AWalter Head
November 1, 2019

On Thursday, the House of Representatives moved one step closer to impeaching the president of the United States for only the third time in history.

The 232-196 vote was to formalize the rules and procedures for the next phase of the impeachment process. All but two Democrats, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and freshman New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew voted for the bill, while every Republican voted against it. Now that the process will become more public — hearings will be televised instead of held behind closed doors — will voters perceptions about impeachment change? Will support for Trump collapse? Will support for impeachment crumble when GOP members cross-examine witnesses?

Not likely.

My mom likes to tell the story of how she spent the summer of 1973 glued to the television. Like many Americans, she was caught up in the drama known as the Senate Watergate hearings. Me, not so much. I was three years old and probably just wanted to watch Sesame Street. Anyway, she wasn't alone. According to Pew Research, 71% of Americans told Gallup they watched the hearings live.

On the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's resignation, the late Andy Kohut, Pew Research's founding director and one of the most respected pollsters of his time, wrote that public coverage did make a significant and immediate impact. According to Kohut, a "53% majority came to the view that Watergate was a serious matter, not just politics, up from 31% who believed that before the hearings." Nixon's job approval rating in May, just before the hearings began, was 44 percent. By August, his job approval rating had dropped 13 points to 31 percent.

Yet, "despite the increasingly negative views of Nixon at that time," wrote Kohut, "most Americans continued to reject the notion that Nixon should leave office." According to Gallup, just 26% thought he should be impeached and forced to resign, while 61% did not." It wasn't until July of 1974 that support for impeachment hit 50 percent. Nixon resigned a month later.

Today, according to FiveThirtyEight, almost half of Americans already support impeaching the president (48 percent), while 44 percent do not. This is before any formal vote or hearing had taken place. Notably, support for impeaching the president is only six points lower than Trump's overall disapproval rating (54 percent), while opposition to impeachment is just three points higher than his approval rating (41 percent). In other words, how you feel about Trump lines up pretty well with how you feel about impeachment.

This isn't all that different from what we saw in 1998. From the time the House voted to formally begin the impeachment proceedings in October until the December 19 vote for impeachment, opinions of Clinton and impeachment were static. There were notable "TV moments" along the way, including the November testimony of Special Prosecutor Ken Starr. Even with the public exposure, support for impeachment never got above 33 percent, and Clinton's job approval rating never dipped below 56 percent. In addition, there was almost a perfect correlation between approval/disapproval of Clinton and support for/opposition to impeachment. For example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll from October 8-10, 1998 found that just 33 percent of Americans thought Congress should impeach Clinton, to 64 percent who opposed it. A Gallup poll taken at that same time (Oct. 9-12), found Clinton's job approval rating at 65 percent with 32 percent disapproving. In other words, 64 percent of Americans approved of the job Clinton was doing and 65 percent thought he shouldn't be impeached. This correlation continued throughout the impeachment process.



In 1998 a more public airing of the process (à la Watergate Hearings) didn't have any impact on opinions of the president, the process or the underlying prospect of impeachment. That's likely to be the case this time around too. The upcoming hearings will be viewed by many through their partisan sources of information — be it cable TV or social media, making it impossible to detach the hearings from politics and partisanship. There will be one official impeachment process, but many 'unofficial' interpretations of it.

Back in 1973-74, even as voters were souring on Nixon, and getting plenty of evidence of his wrongdoings, but they weren't sold on the prospect of the wrenching process of impeachment until the very end. Impeaching a president is rare for a reason. It can tear and divide us like nothing else. Yet,  it's hard to believe that anything can divide us more than we already are. As such, an impeachment vote feels less like a sacred, once-in-a-lifetime event and more like a predictable reaction to a time of ceaseless polarization.