House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been hesitant to hold a vote on an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump because it would force swing-seat Democrats to go on the record on impeachment, potentially hurting themselves politically with voters who don’t like the proceedings. That she decided to reverse course Thursday — and corralled 231 of the 234 House Democrats to vote “yea” — shows how quickly the politics of impeachment have shifted.
There are many reasons why those who followed Pelosi’s lead can feel assured it was the right political move.
The fact that an overwhelming majority of Democrats from swing and red-leaning districts voted for the resolution suggests that they feel confident that the politics of impeachment will help them heading into the 2020 elections. But they shouldn’t be overconfident: Voters in crucial swing states are lagging behind others in their enthusiasm for impeaching Trump and removing him from office. And that means a full-court Democratic press toward removing Trump could hurt them in the presidential race, as well as in next year’s competitive Senate elections. Even the party’s House majority rests on the 31 seats held by representatives whose districts voted for Trump.
Still, there are many reasons why those who followed Pelosi’s lead can feel assured it was the right political move. Polling has shifted significantly in the pro-impeachment direction since September, when news of the Ukraine scandal emerged. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, only 37 percent of Americans favored an impeachment inquiry on Sept. 19, with 54 percent opposed. Today, the polling average is 51 percent supportive and 42 percent opposed.
Importantly, the increase hasn’t just been among Democrats. Independents, who voted narrowly for Trump in 2016 by 46 percent to 42 percent, according to CNN exit polls, also view impeachment more favorably now. Their backing has grown from 34 percent to 46 percent over the past six weeks (this polling average counts all impeachment polls, including for starting an impeachment inquiry and impeaching Trump and removing him from office).
Pelosi brought the impeachment inquiry resolution to a vote Thursday to affirm the existing investigation and outline how the inquiry would proceed moving forward. While Pelosi stressed that this vote was not constitutionally mandated, she clearly calculated that the Republican pushback about the lack of one and other issues of transparency in the process meant holding a vote would neutralize that argument.
But that doesn’t mean that Democrats from red districts can rest assured that they are able to endorse impeachment and not lose their seats, which is likely why two Democrats didn’t approve the measure Thursday. The pair, Collin Peterson from Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew from New Jersey, come from fairly red districts. (A third Democratic representative, Donald McEachin from Virginia, is recovering from surgery and didn’t attend the vote, but said he supports the measure. Independent Justin Amash of Michigan also voted in favor of the inquiry procedures.)
Peterson faces the most political pressure to oppose impeachment — Minnesota’s 7th District voted for Trump by 31 percentage points. Although New Jersey’s 2nd District only voted for Trump by 5 percentage points, Van Drew has arguably been the Democrat most vocally opposed to the impeachment inquiry, predicting it would be a “failed process” that would divide the country.
And the dance is delicate not just for winning over those from red states, but also for the broader population, since while support for impeachment has grown, it still lags behind Trump’s disapproval numbers. While about 48 percent of Americans support impeaching Trump and removing him from office, about 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s job performance. This means that a small but potentially crucial percentage of the electorate dislikes Trump but not to the point where they want to remove him from office. If these voters feel that Democrats are moving too far in impeaching Trump, they may be less likely to support Democrats in 2020.
Impeachment may particularly hurt Democrats because voters in the swing states that will decide the 2020 election are still fairly lukewarm to the idea. One poll of voters in the six states that Trump won most narrowly in 2016 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina) found that while voters in those states support an impeachment inquiry by a margin of 50 percent to 45 percent, they also oppose impeaching Trump and removing him from office by 53 percent to 43 percent.
If Democrats cannot increase the percentage of voters in these states who support removing Trump from office, they may be in trouble. This could wound them in the presidential race, as well as in next year’s competitive Senate elections in Michigan, Arizona and North Carolina. However, it’s certainly possible that if the impeachment inquiry uncovers new details about the Ukraine scandal, support for impeachment and removal would increase. After all, backing for an inquiry did grow significantly in the past month as the Ukraine scandal came to light, Democratic leaders signaled the start of an inquiry, and witnesses were questioned during depositions.
Given that, it’s also possible that the impeachment process will hurt Republicans in the House who represent blue-leaning or even swing districts. Three Republicans (John Katko from New York, Will Hurd from Texas and Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania) represent districts that voted for Clinton, yet voted against the impeachment inquiry resolution. While Hurd has announced he’s retiring, Katko and Fitzpatrick are running for re-election and could be especially vulnerable thanks to this vote.
The impeachment process could also have a big impact on the politics of the Senate, especially if the House passes articles of impeachment and a trial advances to the upper chamber. Nine Democratic senators represent states that voted for Trump, and two of them (Doug Jones in Alabama and Gary Peters in Michigan) are up for re-election next year. All of them could face political pressure to vote against removing Trump from office, just like red-state Democrats faced pressure to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court last October.
Of course, since the Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, whether Trump is removed ultimately rests most heavily on whether these GOP senators vote in favor of doing so, should the process get that far. For now, this seems unlikely given that zero Republicans voted for the impeachment inquiry resolution Thursday. But that could change.
To reach the two-thirds threshold for ousting a president from office, at least 20 Republican senators would need to vote for removal, assuming all the Democrats are supportive. Currently, this will be an extremely difficult number to achieve because the overwhelming majority of Republican voters approve of Trump’s job performance and oppose impeachment (90 percent each in the latest CNN poll) and Trump has a stranglehold on the GOP primaries.
Demonstrating that is the case of Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who had been one of Trump’s strongest Republican critics in the House only to lose his primary in 2018. Since then, Sanford has launched a presidential primary bid against the president, but state Republican parties are trying to prevent primaries from happening. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of Trump’s strongest Republican critics in the Senate, didn’t even run for re-election because he didn’t see himself winning the primary. And Trump himself is incentivizing Republican senators to oppose impeachment by aggressively fundraising for those who have defended him.
How low would Trump’s approval rating among Republicans have to fall for GOP senators to vote to remove him? The two presidents ever to have been impeached (Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998) defeated the efforts to remove then. Richard Nixon’s fate, though, is illustrative because he did leave office. He resigned before a vote to remove him was taken, but that was because he knew he didn’t have the necessary support of Republicans to stay.
It’s also possible that the impeachment process will hurt Republicans in the House who represent blue-leaning or even swing districts.
When the House Judiciary Committee voted on three articles of impeachment for Nixon in July of 1974, two of the articles got 6 of 17 Republican votes, mostly from the moderate wing of the party. This is roughly equivalent (35 percent vs. 38 percent) to the proportion of Republican senators needed to remove Trump from office today.
At the time, about 50 percent of Republican voters approved of Nixon’s job performance and about 60 percent of the public supported impeaching and removing Nixon. These numbers were both quite a bit worse for Nixon than they are for Trump right now. (Right now, about 85 percent of Republican voters approve of Trump’s job performance and about 48 percent of the public supports impeaching and removing Trump.)
Trump’s political standing would have to deteriorate significantly for Republican senators to defect in large enough numbers to remove him from office if they base their votes on political self-preservation. But as the momentum in favor of impeachment is quickly shifting, demonstrated by Thursday’s vote, it’s not impossible that Trump would reach the danger zone of Nixon’s numbers.
CORRECTION (OCT. 31, 2019, 3:00 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated how many Democrats voted for the impeachment inquiry measure. It was 231; Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, an independent, also voted for it, making the final tally 232.