Mellman: How the Senate decided impeachment

Mellman: How the Senate decided impeachment
© Greg Nash

What can the impeachment vote tell us about the forces at work as our elected representatives grapple with key issues?

I recently cited British philosopher and parliamentarian Edmund Burke, a founding father of conservatism, who argued the trusteeship theory of representation. A legislator, Burke wrote, should not sacrifice to constituents "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience… Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

In other words, a proper representative should do what he or she thinks is right, irrespective of what his or her constituents might think.


Republicans possessed of extensive Senate experience claimed a secret ballot would have produced just ten votes to acquit, suggesting at least 33 sacrificed their own judgment to something.

Without access to the private thoughts of each senator, we can’t know which factors demined their vote. In fact, they may not know themselves exactly why they voted the way they did.

But we can catch a glimmer of the interplay of three powerful forces: partisanship, constituent preferences, and individual judgment. Partisanship here connotes senators siding with their own party — Democratic senators lined up on one side of the line, with most Republicans arrayed on the other.

Constituent preferences refers to the views of voters in each senators’ home state. We don’t have polling from each state on preferences for conviction versus acquittal, but we can use demographic data from national polling to (very roughly) estimate state level results.

Finally, there is the factor to which we have no access, senators’ personal judgments about the merits of the case.


Ninety-three senators (AKA, 93 percent of the Senate) voted with their party caucuses.

Most members also reflected their constituents. By these crude calculations 84 senators voted the way their constituents would have wanted.

For the vast majority of senators, 77, personal partisanship, constituents’ preferences and their ultimate vote all went the same way.

Four senators clearly relied on their own independent judgment. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump looms large over GOP donor retreat in Florida Top GOP super PAC endorses Murkowski amid primary threat Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (Alaska), Bill CassidyBill CassidyCalls grow for national paid family leave amid pandemic Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats Vivek Murthy confirmed as surgeon general MORE (La.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTwo sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process MORE (Utah), and Ben SasseBen SasseTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Maine GOP rejects motion to censure Collins Senators urge Energy chief to prioritize cybersecurity amid growing threats MORE (Neb.) all voted against both their own party and the likely preferences of their constituents. Disregarding both co-partisan colleagues and voters’ views is particularly difficult and reflects significant political courage.

What happens though when personal partisanship and constituent demands conflict? Seven senators apparently faced that circumstance. Two, Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeySasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Philly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote MORE (Pa.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (Maine), ended up with their constituents instead of their party.

Ascribing purely political motivations to them strains credulity — Toomey had already announced he is not running in 2022 and therefore won’t face those voters again, while Collins just emerged victorious with a near landslide margin.

Arizona voters probably opposed conviction, just barely, but Joe BidenJoe BidenFederal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Biden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Jill Biden gives shout out to Champ, Major on National Pet Day MORE and Sen. Mark KellyMark KellyThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules Democratic county official joins race for Pennsylvania Senate seat MORE had just won the state. So Kelly, and colleague Kyrsten Sinema, joined their fellow Democrats in voting to convict.

Three other Democrats voted with their party, but at some potential peril. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's infrastructure plan triggers definition debate Lawmakers say fixing border crisis is Biden's job Five things to watch on Biden infrastructure plan MORE (Mont.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing Buttigieg on exaggerated infrastructure jobs estimate: 'I should have been more precise' MORE (W.Va.) in particular, and Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownA bold fix for US international taxation of corporations Democrats offer competing tax ideas on Biden infrastructure Former Ohio health director won't run for Senate MORE (Ohio) to a lesser extent, likely faced meaningful margins among home state voters against the positions they took on conviction.

Senators from Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin seemed to face even division among constituents, and all but Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNorth Carolina mayor Rett Newton launches Senate bid Democratic hopeful Jeff Jackson raises .3M for North Carolina Senate bid Rick Scott 'very optimistic' Grassley will run for another term MORE (N.C.) ended up with their partisan colleagues.

Of course, it’s just one case, with only 100 senators, but it was a particularly important one. Nonetheless, any lessons are at best tentative.

In an era like ours, when politics is well sorted, most often a legislator’s own partisanship and their constituents’ views pull them in the same direction. Few resist that tide.

But the impeachment vote also shines further light on the power of partisanship. Whether that is the pull of abstract loyalty, agreement on first principles or the social pressure of a caucus of colleagues, is not at all clear, but partisanship seems to count for a lot.

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, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.