Mellman: Which is the right question?

Mellman: Which is the right question?
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Survey questions asking whether voters want to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office are now mesmerizing pundits and pols. 

Important as it seems, it may be the wrong question on which to focus.

Far more people want to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office today than wanted to take that action against either Richard Nixon (before the Judiciary Committee voted out articles of impeachment) or against Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPrince Andrew says he regrets staying with Jeffrey Epstein Now for your moment of Zen from the Trump impeachment hearings The Hill's Morning Report — Public impeachment drama resumes today MORE (ever).

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In a poll that drew a typically angry and absurd rebuke from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE, Fox News found 51 percent supporting his impeachment and removal from office — a 9-point increase since July.

Support for impeaching and removing Trump today is about 15 points higher than it was for Nixon after he’d endured months of Watergate hearings, indictments of seven top aides and the Saturday Night Massacre, when the president fired the special prosecutor investigating him, as well as Justice Department officials who refused to participate in the dismissal.

A majority favored removing Nixon only after the House Judiciary Committee voted out articles of impeachment on a somewhat bipartisan basis.

Support for removing Clinton never exceeded about a third, far lower than the current desire to take that drastic action against Trump.

Responses to that question alone might suggest President Trump is nearing the end of his tenure.  

However, that’s only part of the story, and perhaps the less important part.

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The preeminent indicator of a president’s political health is his approval rating. 

It enjoys pride of place because scholars have uncovered clear relationships between approval ratings and real-world political events —congressional election results, presidential election outcomes, and even the volume of legislation presidents pass. Approval ratings measure a president’s political power, at least in part.

By this vital measure, Trump stands about 20 points below Clinton, but 12-14 points higher than Nixon.

Moreover, while the number who favor impeaching and removing Trump jumped in recent weeks, his approval rating barely wiggled.

Clinton’s much higher approval also barely budged during the process, while Nixon’s fell precipitously. 

Damaged by Vietnam and America’s fall into recession, as well as by Watergate, Nixon’s approval rating plummeted from over 50 percent to about 25 percent before a group of GOP senators, led by Barry Goldwater, informed the then-president that his fellow Republicans would vote to remove him from office.

Trump was never as popular as either Clinton or Nixon at their highs. Indeed, Trump is the most consistently unpopular president in the history of polling. 

However, Trump’s sickly approval rating has yet to fall from the low 40s where it’s hovered for most of his presidency. Momentum and levels are both important in understanding public opinion and there’s no evidence yet of downward momentum in Trump’s approval rating.

Removing a president from office, whether through conviction or the threat of conviction, requires at least some level of bipartisanship, and that’s where another critical difference emerges between Nixon’s final weeks and Trump’s current standing.

Nixon’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent among Republicans even before the committee vote on impeachment. As the president’s power ebbed in his own party, fellow Republicans became more willing to criticize and oppose him.

While Trump lies about his poll support from Republicans, and it’s beginning to show some cracks, his approval nonetheless remains substantial with the GOP. Eighty-five percent of Republicans continue to approve of his performance, according to the latest YouGov survey, a far cry from where Nixon stood. 

Even if more than half the country wants him impeached, until we see Trump’s approval rating fall further, fueled by Republican defections, the chances of the Senate removing him from office are probably negligible.

But if hearings and revelations lead Republicans to desert Trump, as they left Nixon, he may not remain in office long enough to lose the next election. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.