It was a brief, shining moment for congressional Democrats: As details of Trump’s Ukrainian phone call spilled out, and as House Democrats revved the impeachment engine, early polls evidenced strong support for removingDonald Trumpfrom office. Though much of that support came from Democrats, critically, it also came from Independents: A late OctoberGallup pollput Independents in favor of removing Trump from office at 53% to 44%, and a Morning Consult poll in early November revealed an even greater gap, 49% to 34%, in favor of removal.
That early enthusiasm represented a potential bonanza for the Democrats, albeit a surprising one. Independents tend to be moderate and pay less attention to newsbreaks and politics, and are an unlikely group to suddenly surge in support of a precipitous step like impeachment. Independents are also one of the keys, if not the key, to the 2020 elections. According to Gallup, self-identified Independents make uproughly 40%of the electorate. Many of these voters are closet partisans, reliably voting for one party or another, but enough of them—call it somewhere between 10% or 20%—are true “persuadables” or “movables” whose votes are up for grabs. Even a modest shift in allegiance among this group could determine the outcome next November.
Alas, for the Democrats, the promising numbers of late October and early November rapidly dissipated, and polling numbers have reverted to a level more consistent with long-term opinions on President Trump. In the latestPolitico/Morning Consult poll, released on November 19, Independents opposed impeachment and removal from office 46% to 39%, a number close to the rolling averages of the last few weeks. It is notable that the poll was fieldedafterthefirst public impeachment hearings. Even thecompelling testimonyof witnesses likeMarie Yovanovitch,the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, failed to move the needle on public opinion. That doesn’t mean further hearings won’t energize greater opposition to Trump, but it’s a little hard to imagine more effective testimony than that offered by Yovanovitch and some of her Foreign Service colleagues.
To understand the relative lack of enthusiasm among Independents for impeachment, I took a close look at data from the most recent Politico/Morning Consult tracking poll, a poll in which the Hive had the opportunity to propose questions focused on Independents and their views. The data, along with supplementary interviews, illustrates an electorate that believes the impeachment inquiry is connected to the priorities of politicians and the media—not of ordinary voters—and an electorate confused and dispirited by the nonstop parade of Washington scandals.
Three important factors are driving the views of Independents. The first is that, in their view, impeachment distracts from issues they care about. Twenty-seven percent of Independents described impeachment as a top priority, and another 10% agreed that it is a priority, just not a top one. In the abstract, 37% saying that an issue is a priority doesn’t sound too bad, but among the 11 issues that Politico and Morning Consult tested, impeachment ranked last, well below the deficit at 74%, health care at 72%, and infrastructure at 70%. Even Trump’s absurd border wall scored as a higher priority for Independents. Fundamentally, most Independents want Congress to focus on the issues that impact their lives. They have not been convinced that curtailing the bad acts of Donald Trump would have any tangible effect.
The second factor is the view among Independents that impeachment reflects the agenda of the political establishment and the media. Regardless of what they think about Trump’s behavior, Independents see impeachment as a continuation of the partisan bickering and media excess that began even before his inauguration. By massive margins, Independents say that the impeachment issue is “more important to politicians than it is to me” (62% to 22%) and “more important to the media than it is to me” (61% to 23%). It is hard to read this as anything but a warning to the Democratic leadership and candidates: Stop talking about issues that matter to you, not to me. Impeachment proceedings are viewed as bread and circuses for the anti-Trump crowd in Washington and the media—or, as Stanford political science professorMorris Fiorinadescribed it to me, “entertainment and confirmation.” That’s a dangerous perception as Democrats approach one of the most consequential and fraught elections of our times.
Third, as other reporting hassuggested, Independents suffer from scandal fatigue and overall confusion. They agreed with the statement “[It is] difficult to tell all the investigations in Washington apart” by a roughly two-to-one margin. (Even Democrats concur by a substantial, if somewhat smaller, margin). This no doubt reflects a successful Trump strategy to sow confusion and spread blame. By constantly charging others with acting badly and by creating such a long litany of disputable acts, Trump has in effect led many voters to dismiss the whole mess as the type of bad thing that all politicians do. Confusion has been aggravated by a rating-seeking media, whose credibility has been undermined by the fact that some cable hosts and their guests have consistently predicated, with astonishing stubbornness and inaccuracy, that the next scandal will be the one that topples Trump. It may be that the Democrats finally have the best facts against Trump, and the clearest story line of all. But they face a segment of the public that is jaundiced by what has gone on before.
The president may be surviving the current impeachment efforts largely unscathed, but it’s not because he is believed or trusted. Trump has, in typical blustery style,describedhis actions as “perfect,” but few are buying it. Most Independents believe, by 39% to 31%, that the president did what the whistle-blower and subsequent witnesses have said he did: withheld military aid to Ukraine until the Ukrainians agreed to announce investigations into his political rivals. And by similar margins, 40% to 35%, Independents believe Trump “abused his power” to affect the 2020 elections. It’s somewhat remarkable that so many people see an abuse of power, but seem unwilling to hold it against the president in any meaningful way. But of course Ukraine is only the latest example of Trump’s immoral or possibly illegal behavior, and the public has largely priced that into its perception of him, not to mention its perception of all politicians.
Yesterday brought another episode of what theWashington Post’s television critic iscallingthe “Quid Pro Show,” and it may have been the best yet, with Ambassador (andmajor Trump donor)Gordon Sondlanddirectly and dramaticallyimplicatingthe president and a large coterie of his henchmen. Predictably, some in the media immediately perceived a turning point, the testimony that will finally do Trump in, either through impeachment or in 2020. But that misunderstands the nature of voter response here. For many, this will confirm what they already believe, but for more, it will continue to be an irrelevancy disconnected from the issues that matter to them. The risk for Democrats is that impeachment will overshadow any positive messaging, and that risk is not small. On Wednesday, Sondland’s testimony effectively eclipsed theDemocratic debatein Atlanta, rendering it a secondary news event at best. As the calendar turns into 2020 and voters pay more attention to the candidates, the cost of obscuring any positive messages will rise dramatically for the Democrats. As Fiorina said to me, the voting public is full of “lots of people who don’t like Trump who are still prepared to vote for him if [the Democrats] don’t nominate anyone reasonable.”