The Memo: Impeachment overshadows 2020 race for Democrats
Impeachment is complicating the Democratic race for president — and not only in terms of whether the public supports or opposes it.
The sheer intensity of the spotlight on impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill is overshadowing the primacy process, even with the Iowa caucuses less than three months away.
That makes it more difficult for candidates to shift the trajectory of the race or have the kind of breakout moment that would change their fortunes at a stroke.
This past week’s Democratic debate in Atlanta — the fifth round of debates this cycle — was the least watched so far. The clash between 10 candidates at Tyler Perry Studios drew 6.6 million TV viewers, according to overnight Nielsen ratings.
Back in June, the second of two initial debates in Miami drew 18.1 million viewers. As recently as last month, an Ohio debate pulled in 8.5 million viewers.
Wednesday’s debate had less firepower than events earlier in the day in Washington, when U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland delivered stunning testimony explicitly asserting that there had been a quid pro quo in President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
“The Democrats, including the candidates for president, are all obsessed with President Trump and obsessed with impeachment,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “At the same time, of course each candidate is also trying to communicate what they see as the special aspects of their candidacy.”
Some Democrats, however, said the impeachment battle had an upside as well as a downside, motivating voters to defeat Trump at the ballot box next year — unless he is removed from office before then.
“Impeachment has undoubtedly impacted the pace and cadence of the Democratic primary process over the last six weeks,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “That has both positive and negative implications for Democrats and the party’s candidates. Yes, there is less oxygen for political observers to focus on the race, but impeachment is revving up the Democratic base for whoever is the eventual nominee.”
Payne also argued that the focus on impeachment has allowed Democrats to put forth a unified front rather than foregrounding more divisive issues such as “Medicare for All.”
“It is obscuring some of the ongoing policy disagreements within the field that might result in any disunity,” he said.
While the battles over impeachment go on in Washington, the standings in the Democratic race appear to be being driven by other factors.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has risen sharply in polls in Iowa, where he has been advertising heavily, and in New Hampshire. Buttigieg is positioning himself as a more youthful messenger for the kind of centrism espoused by former Vice President Joe Biden, but his overall chances are dogged by his weakness — so far — with African American voters.
The Atlanta debate offered no obvious moment where Buttigieg’s momentum would have been slowed.
He has another advantage over several of his rivals relating to impeachment. Since he is not a senator, he is not at risk of having to leave the campaign trail to attend a Senate trial if the House votes to impeach Trump.
Six senators are running for president — Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — and would be expected to be on Capitol Hill for such a trial.
There is also the broader question of the popularity, or otherwise, of impeachment to consider.
In the immediate wake of revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, numerous polls showed increased support for impeachment proceedings.
But there have been signs of erosion on that front. An Emerson College poll released Thursday showed that 45 percent of registered voters opposed impeachment and 43 percent supported it — a 6-point swing against impeachment compared with a similar survey in October.
The shift among independents was particularly marked. In the new poll, 49 percent of independents opposed impeachment and 34 percent supported it — an almost exact inversion of the figures from the month before.
Those numbers may be one reason Democrats are hoping to keep the pace brisk on impeachment.
The last scheduled hearings have now concluded. The drafting of impeachment articles could occur as soon as the first week of December.
Democrats hope that will avoid any further erosion in public support and that they can make a compelling case for impeaching the president.
Payne, the Democratic strategist, suggested that timeline would leave plenty of time for the focus to return to the 2020 field.
“The most interesting question is how the primary campaign reignites post-impeachment and which candidate is in a stronger or weaker position as a result,” he said.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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