New poll further casts doubt on impeachment effort

Some Democrats fear their Trump impeachment will be as politically costly as Republicans’ of Clinton. They are right to worry, because early polling does not look promising. If Democrats’ high-risk strategy backfires, instead of weakening and removing Trump, they could catapult him back into the White House stronger than ever. 

Democrats publicly insisted that their impeachment inquiry of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE will not sidetrack other House business. They want to accentuate they are not putting their left’s pleasure (impeachment) before the people’s business (legislating). They are artfully hedging their bets: Should the inquiry not gain public support, forcing them to pull the plug — or should it go forward and assuredly fail in the Senate — they want substantive accomplishments to offset symbolic failure. 

A recent poll shows why they are right to be so concerned. A Hill-Harris poll released on Oct. 2 showed Trump with this year’s highest job approval rating (49 percent) and lowest disapproval rating (51 percent). More significantly the poll notes, “The nationwide survey was conducted on Sept. 28 and 29, less than a week after House Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry.”

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That Trump would be at his approval high and disapproval low, essentially a year ahead of reelection, is bad enough; that it would come amidst the most serious action that can be taken against a president should be especially troubling to Democrats. 

If impeachment promised great success, it needs to show an immediate impact, peeling nonpartisans and independents away from him — and potentially even part of his base. This poll does not show that. While 49 percent job approval obviously is less than a majority, it is materially higher than the 46 percent of the popular vote that won him the White House in 2016. That means: Trump is increasing his base.

Looking into the poll’s figures reveals an even more disturbing note for Democrats. The poll showed Trump’s strong approval at 26 percent and his strong disapproval at 36 percent. On the surface, Democrats could seemingly take heart from that 10 percentage point deficit. However, consider: To reach his 49/51 percent overall job approval level, that means he went 23/15 percent among the non-strongly motivated. 

These should be the people most likely to be influenced by impeachment questions. That they seemingly are not thus far, when the impeachment charges are at their most headline-grabbing, should be a red flag for Democrats: The drawn-out procedure of formal impeachment is likely to erode public feeling even more.

As Democrats well remember, that happened with Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago. After surviving the charges’ initial shock, which had called his presidency’s survival into question, Clinton recovered throughout the extended process. When the case finally reached the Senate, Democrats felt comfortable acquitting Clinton. 

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Further factors should also be dampening Trump’s current ratings. The economy’s noticeable slowing and the trade war’s attrition certainly are not helping him. Further, having been in office for three years, there should be some public fatigue. 

On the other side, Democrats should be at their height. They benefit from having the “shiny new objects” — a plethora of new candidates covering a wide spectrum of positions. Comparatively unknown, they are able to promise with impunity without having to deliver in reality. 

Considering these factors, Trump’s 49/51 percent is dauntingly strong to Democrats. His approval rating rests on the job he has actually done for three years, and for which he is seeking re-election. This is therefore a strong proxy for how these people approving his performance would vote. 

On the negative side, the actual Democrat nominee will likely cut into the 51 percent disapproval — i.e., Trump likely will look better in comparison, at least to some of those now disapproving his performance. Democrats’ nominee will have to endure a year of intensifying scrutiny and attacks thus far largely avoided. Today’s “shiny new objects” will no longer be new and tarnish will start to appear. 

Also, 49 percent is a pretty strong position historically. Over the last century, third parties have averaged 4.5 percent of the popular vote. That means, on average, the two major parties are fighting over about 95 percent of the popular vote. Forty-nine percent is a sizable majority in such circumstances. 

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Further, Trump’s 2016 vote efficiency was extraordinary. Winning just 46 percent of the popular vote and 2 percent less than Clinton, he won 30 states. He turned his sizable popular vote deficit into 304 electoral votes. Should Trump win an additional three percent of the 2020 vote, and disperse it over his 2016 electoral map, he would prove virtually unbeatable. 

If Trump is already relatively strong, likely to get stronger, and his Democrat opponents weaker, that is already bad news for Democrats. If this is where things stand before impeachment really has begun — and impeachment could further accelerate these unfavorably divergent trends for Democrats — their news goes from bad to a whole lot worse.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.