House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is at the intersection of two opposing political forces that seem committed to one outcome: the impeachment of the President of the United States. On one side is a majority of the House Democratic Caucus, boldly progressive and staunchly convinced that impeachment is their duty under the Constitution.
On the other side is President Trump, whose behaviors in office seem focused on daring Democrats to take the historic step of indicting him via a constitutional process. It seems as if the president thought that if Russian interference in the 2016 election wasn’t enough or the firing of the FBI director in an effort to obstruct justice wasn’t enough, then perhaps using the official powers of his office to encourage Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election would tip the balance.
The latter effort is seemingly so egregious, and wrapped up with an alleged White House effort to block the director of national intelligence from informing Congress of a whistleblower report — his requirement under the law — that now the House speaker is moving forward with impeachment. Pelosi knows her decision comes with risk. Her majority is not huge. A shift of just 18 seats in the next election would nix it, and many of the new members who put her back in the speakership came from districts that Trump won or barely lost in 2016.
The common metric used to assess the political risks to Pelosi and her party comes from the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton and Democrats’ performance in the 2000 election. However, that metric is flawed. Impeachments are so uncommon that to generalize an outcome based on such a rare event is misguided.
Trump’s supporters have a different bond with him than Clinton’s did. His opponents oppose him for different reasons. Swing voters, few though they may be, are going to react differently this time around.
It is how voters respond to an impeachment inquiry and, perhaps, the ultimate impeachment of the president that will determine the future of the House majority and the success of the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee.
Yes, some voters will be put off by an impeachment effort. But we must remember that those most appalled by Democrats’ investigation of Trump are likely his most staunch supporters. Similarly, those who already revile Trump are likeliest to be energized by the inquiry.
The key question is how independent voters react to impeachment.
And independents’ minds are yet to be made up. As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, Americans will likely learn more about what the president did and did not do, and they will make a judgment about whether they think he acted improperly, illegally or in a manner that rises to an impeachable offense.
If independents view Democrats’ impeachment efforts as a dog-and-pony show that is cheaply divisive, Democrats in Congress and especially those in swing districts will take a hit. Several may well lose their seats. The Democratic nominee, who will almost surely be someone who supports impeachment — and may well be someone who has to cast a vote in a Senate trial — could be hurt by disapproval from independent voters.
It is possible that independent voters won’t feel passionately about the impeachment effort and will make their 2020 choices based on standard evaluations of candidates, but it’s unlikely. Something as big as impeachment will likely crowd other subjects out of the conversation.
Democrats need to think about how their efforts play with independents. If those voters learn a volume of information that leaves them supportive of the inquiry, even if Trump still survives the battle in a Senate trial, Election Day 2020 will be likelier to break the right way — because Nancy Pelosi will have won the war.
Hudak is a senior fellow in governance studies and the deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution in Washington.