Over the past month, the public’s support for the impeachment and removal of President Trump has grown substantially. The House Democrats have voted to formally adopt an impeachment inquiry and seem very likely to impeach him, a move that looked less than likely even a short time ago.
What hasn’t changed is the lingering suspicion that all this impeachment activity could come back to hurt Democrats in next year’s elections. Should they be worried?
While Congress has never actually removed a president from office (although that might well have happened to Richard Nixon had he not resigned), we can take some lessons from history about the fates of parties that push for impeachment.
The efforts to remove Nixon, Andrew Johnson, and Bill Clinton suggest that there are only minor costs to the party that instigates impeachment, and sometimes great payoffs, depending on the president’s popularity and his support within his own party. Trump’s position, however, is unique in history for a number of reasons, leaving us less clear about the potential fallout for the Democrats.
Republicans led the effort in 1868 to remove President Johnson, a Democrat, with the House approving 11 articles of impeachment but the Senate falling one vote short of removing him from office. Later that year, Johnson was denied the Democratic presidential nomination. The Republicans lost two House seats but ultimately won the presidency.
In 1974, Democrats led the investigation of President Nixon, with some Republicans joining the effort shortly before Nixon’s resignation. Democrats had a strikingly strong performance in the midterm elections just a few months later, picking up 45 House seats. Democrats then won the presidency two years later.
In 1998, Republicans led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. They lost four House seats in that year’s election, which is somewhat unusual since the party not in control of the White House tends to pick up seats in midterm years. The impeachment trial happened more than a month after the election, but the scandal surrounding Clinton and his possible impeachment had dominated the news all year long. To some extent, the election results were a push-back against Republican efforts to impeach the popular president. Clinton was later acquitted by the Senate. Two years later, Republicans won the White House in an extremely close election in which they lost the popular vote.
In two of these cases, the party instigating impeachment suffered minor losses in the House and won the presidency, while in one case the president’s adversaries had a banner year.
I’ve found two sets of polling data particularly relevant in assessing a president’s strengths going into an impeachment attempt — the percentage of Americans favoring impeachment and the percentage of the president’s partisan supporters who approve of the job he’s doing.
At the time of Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, 50% of Republicans approved of the job he was doing as president and 57% of all Americans favored his impeachment and removal. At the time of Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, 91% of Democrats approved of the job he was doing as president, and only 31% of Americans favored his impeachment and removal. So we had one situation where a president had tepid support from his party and strong support for his removal, and another where a president had strong support from his party and weak support for removal.
Today’s situation is different. According to Gallup, 52% of Americans favor Donald Trump’s impeachment and removal, but 87% of his fellow Republicans approve of the job he’s doing. That is to say, there’s fairly clear support for his removal generally and very strong support for him from his party.
This dichotomy reflects how parties have changed in the past several decades. Fifty years ago, there were liberals and conservatives in both parties. Republicans stuck by Republican presidents, and Democrats stuck by theirs, but partisanship wasn’t necessarily reinforced by unwavering ideologies on abortion, guns, civil rights, taxes and more. Nor was there a widespread belief that your party’s loss threatened your entire vision of America. Today, there is.
When half the country wanted Richard Nixon gone from office and when some of his Republican allies in Congress told him they couldn’t support him anymore, he knew it was over. A similar proportion of the country today wants Trump gone from office, but he mostly listens to Fox News and other conservative news outlets (which Nixon didn’t have) that tell him he’s doing a wonderful job and that he should keep fighting his enemies.
In other words, we’re seeing two strong forces — public sentiment favoring impeachment and party defiance — coming into conflict with each other, but resolution could be swift. It’s worth recalling that Nixon’s own party was with him until the moment it wasn’t.
The opinions of voters — even hard core Republican adherents — can move in response to signals from party leaders and elected officials. Republican voters had no great love for President Obama, for example, but when Obama’s approval ratings spiked after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it was mainly due to an increase in favorability among Republicans, driven in large part by messages of approval from Republican leaders.
If enough Republican leaders, or even a few of them, signal they’d rather go into the 2020 elections with someone other than Trump at the top of the ticket, Republican resistance to impeachment could dampen pretty quickly. But that’s a big if.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.