As Impeachment Starts, Watch Trump’s Approval Ratings

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On Monday, I went through the audiences that Democrats will likely have in mind during public impeachment hearings this week and next. Part two now: What are they trying to accomplish?

The point of these hearings isn’t to learn new things. The House intelligence committee will be bringing out witnesses who have already been interviewed behind closed doors. So this is about making a case in public. 

If Democrats want to actually remove Trump from office, then pushing down his public approval is key. So far, the Ukraine scandal hasn’t really done that. According to theFiveThirtyEight estimate, the president’s approval rating is now at 41.1%, down about a percentage point from when the story broke in September. That’s a very weak number, to be sure; Trump ranks 10th of 11 polling-era presidents after 1,027 days in office, and his disapproval number is now up to 54.6%.

But bad as that is, it’s probably not enough to make the party abandon Trump out of electoral self-interest. At 41%, he’s still not a lost cause. Perhaps the polls are off, or maybe he’ll still improve a bit before the election. He might even win without getting 50% support. But if Trump were to slip back to match the lowest point of his presidency, when only about 37% of the public approved of how he was doing his job? Then Republicans might start to wonder if the risks of sticking with him outweighed the risks of removing him.

That suggests Democrats will want to do two things in these hearings: Make them interesting enough that the news media continues to cover the story, and focus on what Trump did and why it was bad, rather than on impeachment as the remedy.

The first part is obvious: The only way any story affects public opinion is if the media covers it, and saturation coverage is what signals to voters that this is a really important story. As for the second part, simply establishing the facts and why they tell a story of malfeasance should be a much easier sell to the public and to the president’s own party. We’ve already seen Republican politicians express discomfort or even outright criticism of Trump’s conduct in this scandal. But none of them has yet said that Trump should be impeached and removed for it, and House Republicans voted unanimously against even setting up the impeachment inquiry.

In other words, saying that Trump did something wrong splits the Republican Party, while saying he should be impeached and removed for it unites them in opposition (at least for now). The way to change that dynamic isn’t by making a logical argument from the facts to impeachment; it’s to push for agreement that Trump’s behavior was appalling, which would then lead to worse numbers in the polls, which would in turn make Republicans in Congress more willing to remove him.

Should it work differently? Should it just be about the evidence and the law? We can debate that all we want. But in fact the Constitution gives this job to politicians, and politicians are going to care about upcoming elections for themselves and their party. When it comes to impeachment, the facts are necessary but they’re not sufficient. 

Most of the public hearings on Trump’s scandals this year have been neither interesting nor effective in laying out facts and explaining why they amount to serious misconduct. The House intelligence committee seems better prepared this time. We’ll soon see whether they’ve learned how to do this. 

1. Dan Drezner onchanges at the National Security Council. 

2. Seth Masket on party strength andpotential Democratic nominees. I’m a bit skeptical of this item, but recommend it strongly, since it grapples with some important questions about nominations. And he might be correct!

3. Thomas Ogorzalek, Luisa Godinez Puig and Spencer Piston at the Monkey Cage on the income levels of Trump voters.

4. Nate Cohn looks again atdetails from the recent New York Times polls. Worth looking at, but keep two things in mind: Subgroup analysis is risky because the margin of error goes way up for smaller groups. And it’s still very early — only the most intense partisans are really thinking about elections, either primary or general, at this point.

5. Brett Holmgren on two particularlydangerous executive-branch vacancies. Trump’s refusal to fulfill the basic duties of his job may or may not be a reason for impeachment, but it’s certainly hugely irresponsible. 

6. And James Poniewozik on theSenate Watergate hearings. Note that those hearings, unlike today’s, were merely an investigation. Impeachment activity came later, in the House. 

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