Trump's impeachment casts its shadow over the next election
Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 48 days until the Iowa caucuses and 322 days until the 2020 election.
Barring some sort of cataclysm that suddenly turns American politics inside out, the Democratic House will impeach President Trump on Wednesday. In January, the Republican Senate will hold an impeachment trial — and almost certainly fail to convict, leaving Trump in office.
Then there will be nine long months until Election Day. Knowing what we know now — and acknowledging that circumstances can change — how will the whole impeachment drama affect the campaigns for control of the House, the Senate and the presidency that will dominate the rest of 2020? Here’s a closer look at the lay of the land:
President: Before the Ukraine scandal began to snowball in late September, a majority of Americans — 51.2 percent, on average — opposed impeaching President Trump. Only 38.7 percent supported his impeachment. Three weeks later, in the wake of the initial revelations about the president’s backdoor efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials into investigating his domestic political rivals, those numbers had completely flipped, with opposition to impeachment falling by more than 10 percentage points (to 40.8 percent) and support climbing by more than 11 (to 50.3 percent).
That 20-plus-point swing meant Trump had crossed the 50 percent threshold on impeachment much faster than Richard Nixon — and, for that matter, Bill Clinton, who never got there at all. Reelection was looking less likely than ever.
Then a funny — and in retrospect, entirely predictable — thing happened. Once House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry, and once the actual process got underway in the House, public opinion began to polarize and harden. On Nov. 1, 48 percent of Americans supported impeachment; 43.9 percent did not. Today, those numbers have nearly converged, with 47.4 percent in favor and 46.6 percent opposed. Televised hearings run by Democrats had the effect of reminding partisans which team they were on.
So what will impeachment ultimately mean for Trump’s electoral prospects? Perhaps not much. The president’s approval rating has remained fairly steady throughout the process, ranging from a net disapproval of 13.7 points to today’s net disapproval of about 9 — the lowest rating at this point in the first term of any president stretching back to Harry Truman. The latest general election polls show most of the Democratic frontrunners either statistically tied with Trump or slightly ahead. Swing states like Wisconsin are still too close to call. Both sides are enthusiastic about the election; turnout could hit record highs.
Trump continues to have a plausible path to victory, but so do the Democrats. Despite all the drama in D.C., the outcome of the first post-impeachment election in American history is likely to be decided the way most elections are: by how effectively the candidates campaign and the strength of their party organization.
House: Here’s where things get interesting. To regain control of the House, Republicans need to net 21 seats. That was always going to be a steep climb. According to the expert handicappers at the Cook Political Report, only one Democratic-held seat leans Republican, while 17 are considered tossups. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending six tossups of their own, and an additional two GOP seats are now either leaning or likely to go Democratic.
Sure, if Republicans win every tossup — and if every lean or likely seat breaks the way Cook currently anticipates — they can just barely eke out 21 pickups.
But that would be the electoral equivalent of pitching a perfect game. Right now, Democrats lead by an average of 6.6 points on the generic ballot question, which asks voters which party they will support in next year’s congressional election. History is on their side as well: Democrats have gained House seats in five of the last six presidential cycles, and the House majority hasn’t flipped during a presidential cycle since 1952. The retirements of at least seven vulnerable GOP incumbents and a redrawn district map ending a Republican-engineered gerrymander in North Carolina give Democrats an additional buffer.
At the margins, though, will the decision to impeach Trump hurt House Democrats more than it helps? There’s some reason to think it might. Democrats are defending seats in 30 districts that Trump won in 2016, and nearly all of these vulnerable Democratic members are likely to vote for impeachment. So far, GOP groups have spent roughly $12 million on impeachment ads in competitive House districts; Democratic groups have spent only one-eighth as much. With Trump on the ballot in 2020, his voters will be more motivated to turn out than they were in 2018, when the GOP lost 41 seats in the House. Impeachment backlash may bolster their enthusiasm.
Yet there’s another side to this argument. What if these Trump-district Democrats, whose ranks include Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, were to vote against impeachment? How would that affect their reelection chances? To get a sense, look no further than conservative Democrat Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey’s Second Congressional District, which covers the southern tip of the state. After flipping NJ-2 in 2018, Van Drew voted against Trump more than 90 percent of the time. But he also refused to support impeachment, and this week he announced that he would switch parties and become a Republican. The tipping point was an internal poll showing that his support had collapsed among Democrats in his district, with only 24 percent saying he deserves reelection and a full 71 percent saying they would be less likely to support him in 2020 if he votes against impeachment.
To win reelection, someone like Slotkin needs to do more than persuade swing voters. She also needs to excite Democrats. Voting against impeachment would have the opposite effect. That’s why Slotkin was likely less dispirited by the dozens of Trump supporters who shouted her down Sunday when she announced she would vote to charge the president with high crimes and misdemeanors than she was encouraged by the roughly 400 locals who “leapt to their feet and applauded.”
In next year’s House races, rank-and-file Republicans might be animated by anti-impeachment sentiment. But so far there is no sign that will be enough to deliver the inside straight they need to regain control of the chamber.
Senate: Until recently, the Senate seemed like a bright spot for Republicans; to preserve their majority, they simply need to prevent the Democrats from netting three seats (if Trump loses) or four seats (if he wins and a Republican vice president becomes the tiebreaker). According to Cook, only three GOP-held seats are even considered tossups (Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona and Susan Collins in Maine), and Democrats are defending a tossup of their own (Doug Jones in Alabama). That means to flip the Senate, Democrats would also need everything to break their way.
The trouble for Republicans is that impeachment seems to be making that more possible, not less. January’s Senate trial will force Gardner, McSally and Collins to take some of the toughest votes of their careers. They’re unlikely to vote to convict Trump for fear of enraging the GOP base. But by voting to acquit, they will probably alienate swing voters and motivate Democrats to turn out.
Adding to the GOP’s headaches is the fact that Democratic Senate challengers in Arizona, Maine and Iowa raised more money last quarter than the senators they’re running against. In Colorado, the polls show former Gov. John Hickenlooper leading Gardner by double-digit margins. In Arizona, challenger Mark Kelly is ahead of McSally by 3. And according to the most recent Maine poll, 50 percent of voters there disapprove of Collins’s job performance, and only 35 percent approve. The same poll, conducted in October, showed Collins trailing a generic Democratic candidate 44 percent to 41 percent — a 9-point swing from September, when she led a generic Democrat 44 percent to 38 percent.
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