By JONATHAN BERNSTEIN / BLOOMBERG
WITH House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (picture) announcing a formal impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, it’s worth considering the electoral politics involved.
It’s early to speculate on such things, of course. There’s been no polling on the whistleblower complaint that prompted this announcement.
Nor do we know whether the House will wind up voting for impeachment or what the Senate will do. But we can think about how public opinion and elections normally work, and how the uncertainties of impeachment may factor in.
So far, President Donald Trump is unpopular — and, polls say, so is impeachment. I expect the latter to change. The more that highly visible Democrats are united in favour of impeachment, the more that Democratic voters and independents who dislike Trump will likely shift toward their position.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that shift happens rapidly, at least if the news media gives saturation coverage to the story and voters start to learn more about it. I think it’s a lot less likely that Trump’s popularity will change. Yes, President Richard Nixon’s approval ratings dropped dramatically over the course of the Watergate scandal. But there are a lot of differences, starting with the fact that Trump has a lot less ground to lose.
It’s possible that new facts could push mild Trump supporters into being mild Trump opponents (and so on for other levels of support), but I wouldn’t count on a lot of that. What really could hurt Trump would be if numerous high-profile Republicans turned against him. That’s unlikely, because those Republicans know that the less popular Trump is, the worse off all party candidates will be in the next election. But if Trump’s approval ratings are going to be harmed, that’s how it’ll happen.
Could impeachment actually make Trump more popular? That, too, is possible but unlikely. President Bill Clinton was probably helped by a partisan impeachment that most neutral opinion leaders, and even some Republicans, thought was a bad idea. I don’t think that’s where elite opinion will be this time.
If, however, this winds up uniting congressional Republicans, and some Democrats go along in Opposition, it could conceivably help Trump. But I wouldn’t count on it. One reason: He’s going to keep doing things that people who have turned against him don’t like.
Assuming Trump survives and becomes the Republican nominee next year, the effects of impeachment per se on the presidential election will probably be small and possibly nonexistent.
We don’t know how long any impeachment and trial would last, but voters tend to have shockingly short memories.
What about congressional elections? In 1974, Republicans lost in a landslide soon after Nixon resigned. That was, in large part, a story about expectations: Since both parties expected disaster for Republicans, strong Democrats ran while strong Republicans didn’t, and Democrats maximised their resources while Republicans failed to. Voters weren’t trying to punish Nixon (or new President Gerald Ford), but the effects of a highly unpopular presidency mattered.
In 1998, Democrats did very well for a midterm with a second-term president, actually gaining seats in the House. Congressional elections expert Gary Jacobson found that Republicans actually were helped in candidate recruitment by the Clinton scandal, but that impeachment — underway at election time — was unpopular with voters, which hurt them. The net effect, Jacobson concluded, was probably a wash.
Right now, we’re in the period where candidates, including incumbents, are deciding whether to run in 2020, so expectations about how impeachment will play out could certainly have some influence.
But I’d expect few voters to choose candidates based mainly on impeachment, which will presumably be long over by then. In fact, I suspect Democratic hopes of using impeachment against marginal Senate Republicans such as Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado are likely to fizzle, as are Republican hopes of using impeachment against House Democrats who won in Republican- friendly districts in 2018. Those candidates may lose.
But my guess is that impeachment votes won’t be a major factor, and might be no factor at all. — Bloomberg
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.