white house

Impeachment's Limited Political Impact on 2020

AWalter Head
December 3, 2019

We live in a political era of incredible volatility and mind-numbing predictability. For only the third time in American history, a president is about to be impeached. Even so, Americans aren’t particularly captivated by a story in which they already know the ending. The president will be impeached on a party-line vote in the House, and acquitted on a similarly predictable party-line vote in the Senate. Polling shows the public is as polarized as the politicians in Washington. The FiveThirtyEight impeachment tracker shows Democrats are overwhelmingly supportive of impeachment (84 percent), Republicans almost universally against it (just 11 percent support), while independents are divided (44 percent support). Trump’s job approval rating has also remained stubbornly fixed during this process. Since January, Trump’s job approval ratings have hovered between 39 and 42 percent.

As such, the fact that Trump will be the first president in US history to run for re-election as an impeached incumbent will be more of a novelty distinction, rather than a defining characteristic of his re-election campaign.

Overall, my guess is that by the time we hit the summer of 2020, the issue of impeachment will just be one more in a string of unprecedented, presidency-altering events that have come and gone in the mind of voters. That’s not to say that it won’t be relevant. While the impeachment process hasn’t impacted Trump’s overall job approval ratings, the question is whether it is draining any of the last bit of ‘goodwill’ or ‘patience’ from voters who Trump needs to win over next fall. While his support from his base is solid, will cross-pressured or ambivalent voters, those who reluctantly supported him last time, or who are happy with the current economy but unhappy with his style, decide that they’ve had enough of the drama and controversy? As one GOPer said to me the other day, will voters decide that they’ve grown tired of the reality show and just can’t stomach another four years of it?

Meanwhile, Republicans are spending a bunch of money on anti-impeachment ads targeting Democratic representatives who sit in Trump-won CDs. For example, according to an analysis by Advertising Analytics for the Cook Political Report, outside GOP groups have spent more than $400,000 on ads in SC-01 (Rep. Joe Cunningham), more than $500,000 in VA-07 (Rep Abigail Spanberger) and over $860,000 in MI-08 (Rep. Elise Slotkin). The goal isn’t simply to get these members to vote against impeachment, but to tar them with the dreaded “partisan” brush. These freshmen all ran as outsiders who were more interested in forging consensus than in engaging in DC partisan warfare. Up until now, they’ve been able to keep that image intact. Ironically, they’ve been shielded from taking ‘tough’ votes on liberal ideological issues like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All by Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the San Fransisco Democrat that many of these freshman distanced themselves from in the 2018 campaign. Once they vote for impeachment, they will have aligned themselves directly with the “Squad” and other liberal members of the Democratic caucus.

But, the fact that Democrats will get this vote out of the way by the end of the year makes it harder for Republicans to argue that these Reps. have spent months neglecting their legislative duties in order to pursue a political vendetta against the president.

And so, we end where this column began: stagnation. Impeachment may take a political toll. But, at this point, its impact is most likely to be felt at the edges and not as a direct hit.