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Why Impeachment Proceedings Against Trump Might Not Change The Electoral Landscape


Today's impeachment debate in the House of Representatives has few historic parallels. Trump is only the third president in U.S. history to face this situation, and no American president has been impeached while running for reelection. So while it's difficult to know what impact this will have on American politics, there are some signs we can look for.

Nathan Gonzales is here in the studio to help us sort through them. He is editor of Inside Elections. Hi, there.


SHAPIRO: No question - today is historic. Does that necessarily also mean that it will have long-term political significance?

GONZALES: I'm a skeptic. I mean, I think that we're in an environment where there aren't true game changers. In the media, we tend to treat everything as a game changer.

SHAPIRO: It's a game changer. Yeah.

GONZALES: When all the dust settles, though, after every news event, nothing really changes - fundamentally changes public opinion. So I think impeachment isn't a game changer until proven otherwise.

SHAPIRO: Well, this has been going on since October. As you look at the poll numbers, do you see any sign of change?

GONZALES: Yeah. Well, let's look at the - according to the RealClearPolitics polling average of the president's job approval rating, today it's at 44% approve, 53% disapprove. That's virtually unchanged from September, when Speaker Pelosi formally introduced the inquiry. It's also virtually unchanged from the beginning of this year.

SHAPIRO: But is some of this like asking people how they liked a movie before the credits roll? Is there a chance that when people see the entirety of the thing, it will have more of an impact than getting the bits and pieces we've had so far?

GONZALES: I think that's a challenge with impeachment polling and looking at it - is that not only is there a difference in the wording of these polls, but also, we're still in the middle of this. The impeachment is not the end of the story. We're still going to have a Senate trial, where there's the potential that what people see on TV and what that fallout is - that people could change their opinion.

SHAPIRO: And that's going to be happening in split screen with Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries. So what do you see as the impact of this on the 2020 election? In another part of the program, we're talking about how the Trump campaign is fundraising off of this. Beyond that, what do you see as the impact?

GONZALES: I think it's going to be limited. I think that there's the potential that impeachment is a historic event that is politically insignificant, in part because the districts - for example, some of the districts that House Republicans are targeting because there are Democratic members in districts that President Trump carried in 2016 - in some of those, Republicans don't even have a credible challenger yet. So I'm not sure how much pressure these Democratic members are really going to feel.

SHAPIRO: So all the talk that we're hearing about Democrats in districts that went for President Trump going out on a political limb by casting a vote for impeachment - you think that's overstated.

GONZALES: In some districts, yes. I mean, the Trump campaign released a poll - 900 sample over 30 districts. And the challenge with doing that is that not all those districts are created equal. There might have a top candidate against, for example, Collin Peterson in Minnesota, but they don't have a top-tier candidate against Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. And so those races are, right now, very different.

SHAPIRO: So while the Trump campaign is arguing that this is going to hurt moderate Democrats, you think the data they're using might be cherry-picked.

GONZALES: Correct, or it's selective. And I think the other challenge with polling is that it doesn't tell us what priority impeachment is going to be in voters' minds in 2020. They're just asking, do you think the president should be impeached or not? But that - impeachment could be their first issue, second, fifth, 10th when they actually cast a ballot next November.

SHAPIRO: And some of the challenge here - just that President Trump seems to have rewritten the rules of politics from the minute he began his campaign. And so any assessment of how politics should work is not necessarily going to hold true when we look at how they do work in the Trump administration.

GONZALES: I think that's part of it, and I think that he has polarized the electorate in a unique way and that people have already made up their mind. The process is not going to elicit new opinions because Republicans have already discredited the inquiry from the very beginning. And so I think he has hardened public support either for him or against him. And in that way, he has changed things a little bit.

SHAPIRO: That's Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections.

Thanks for your analysis.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.