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Just a couple weeks ago, the prospect of the House voting to impeach the president looked unlikely. Interest in the Russia collusion story had faded. And, attempts by House Democrats to keep it front and center — like the televised hearing featuring former Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski — flopped spectacularly. Then, just over a week ago, came news of a whistleblower who claimed President Trump pressured the Ukrainian president for information about Joe Biden. Since then, there’s been a steady, unrelenting series of developments.
This week, we also got our first round of polling taken since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House was starting a formal impeachment inquiry. As of Tuesday, Oct. 1st, there have been five live-caller polls taken since the Ukraine story broke and Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry: CNBC, Marist/PBS/NPR, CNN, Quinnipiac and Monmouth. All but Marist were conducted over multiple days (Marist was a one-day poll). Marist did not ask an up or down question on impeachment (they asked about starting an impeachment inquiry), while CNN did not ask a presidential job approval question.
The first thing you notice is that the opinions of the president have stayed stable since the Ukraine story broke. Trump’s job approval rating measured anywhere from 37 percent (CNBC) to 44 percent (Marist). As I noted last week, opinions about this president are incredibly fixed. Over the last two-plus years, his approval ratings have stayed within a very narrow range of between 35 percent to 45 percent.
While Trump’s overall job approval hasn’t budged, opinions of impeachment have moved significantly in favor of impeachment. In other words, even as support for impeachment has grown, views of the president are virtually unchanged.
In August, support for impeachment in the Monmouth poll was just 35 percent, with 59 percent opposed. This month, 44 percent said they supported impeachment with just over half (52 percent) against it, a 16-point swing in favor of impeachment. A Quinnipiac poll taken before revelations of the Ukraine call found support for impeachment underwater by 20 points; 37 to 47 percent. Today, voters are evenly divided at 47 percent.
In his memo outlining the poll results, Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray noted how different this pattern — support for impeachment moves up while Trump approval stays stable — is from what we saw during the Nixon impeachment. Between June of 1973 to April of 1974, when the House began its impeachment inquiry, support for impeachment jumped 27 points (from 19 percent to 46 percent). And, at the same time, Nixon’s job approval ratings slowly declined from 44 percent in June of 1973 to 25 percent just 10 months later. Today, while support for impeaching Trump is basically at the same point it was with Nixon in 1974, Trump’s job approval rating is 16-points higher. It is a testament to just how much more polarized the electorate is today than it was 45 years ago. It may also reflect the reality that in 2019 Americans simply aren’t as shocked or surprised about the prospect of this kind of presidential behavior as they were back in 1973-74.
What’s also interesting to note is that while Trump’s overall approval ratings remain deep underwater ( from -12 to -16), support for impeachment remains underwater too — albeit by a smaller margin. In other words, there are a bunch of people who don’t like the job Trump’s doing in office, but who also think he shouldn’t be impeached.
I asked CNBC’s pollster Jay Campbell to help me understand who these voters, those disapproving of Trump, but also disapproving of impeachment, were. He told me that they are “younger than average” and more independent than average. However, he said the group that he was most interested in — and the group that holds the key to the future perceptions of an impeachment proceeding — is the 22 percent of respondents who said they were “not sure” or only “lean” for/against impeachment but don’t feel strongly about it.
Like the group of anti-Trump, anti-impeachment voters, these voters are younger and more independent leaning and less Republican. But, Campbell told me, “ their numbers on Trump approval are 19% approve, 58% disapprove—so WAY lower than average. Not terribly surprising given that they are less Republican, but it also tells me that once they DO engage in this issue they are more apt to go against the president, since he’s already behind the eight ball with them.” Campbell also notes that Trump’s base has been quick to rally around him, with 92 percent of conservative Republicans against impeachment, while liberal Democrats are not as unified. Only 79 percent of liberal Democrats are in favor of impeachment at the moment, Campbell said, meaning that there is “a good bit more room for “growth” on the left than on the right.”
Overall, Campbell argues, Trump is “close to his ceiling for those who will be against impeachment. Since this on the fence group is slanted against him in general and conservative Reps are already 'maxed out' in their opposition, it seems like the only place for impeachment support to go is up.”
Of course, this assumes a static process, which, as we know, is not possible. Instead, voters are going to get inundated with more information — much of it through partisan, biased filters like social media and cable news. And, Congressional leaders and the president are going to face their own challenges in responding to new information. It may also be the case that, while opposition to impeachment may have hit a ceiling, there’s no guarantee that support is only likely to grow. Instead, what we may find is that voters who aren’t sure they like the way the president conducts himself - and who disapprove of his phone-call ‘diplomacy’ with the Ukrainians - may never be convinced that impeachment is the only way forward.
Image credit: Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images