Don't be too sure that impeachment won't move public opinion

Don't be too sure that impeachment won't move public opinion
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), CNN Screengrab

Last week, I lamented about how the political press is incapable of conveying the gravity of a historic clash between two co-equal branches of government--one that has the potential to redefine a president's powers and immunities going forward--in large part because most reporters are trained to cover political conflicts on the eve of an election first and foremost in the context of the horse race. So yesterday's big impeachment news was that 70 percent of Americans believed Trump's "actions tied to Ukraine were wrong" and a slim majority favored removing him from office, according to an ABC News/ Ipsos poll, and today we learn that "the first week of the House’s public impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump did not move public support for the inquiry in Democrats’ favor, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico poll."

Meanwhile, an NPR headline blares, "Americans Overwhelmingly Say Impeachment Hearings Won't Change Their Minds." That oversells the key finding from the latest NPR/ Marist college survey: "65% of Americans say they can't imagine any information or circumstances during the impeachment inquiry where they might change their minds about their position on impeachment. And 30% say yes, it's possible."

You will never go broke betting on hyper-partisanship and media siloing leading people to entrenched positions that aren't movable by new facts. The conventional wisdom is probably correct that as long as the conservative media have Trump's back, his base will remain and Republican Senators will acquit him if the House impeaches.

At the same time, this conclusion leads to an unhealthy and perhaps inaccurate cynicism. If nothing matters in the end, then why bother paying attention to these hearings? And if you're a journalist, why not focus your reporting on the horse race or complain that impeachment lacks "pizzazz"? It can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy by signaling to the majority of Americans who haven't tuned into the hearings that they're just typically dull partisan squabbles that aren't worth considering.

Setting aside the obvious--that we're in totally uncharted waters here--there are three reasons why the conventional wisdom about public opinion on impeachment may prove wrong or why the media's obsession with polling obscures an important point.

First, a lot of people appear to have an open mind. Even if we assume that the 30 percent of the public who told Marist College pollsters that their opinions of the case could be changed is twice the actual number because people think that they should be open to new information, that would still mean that 15 percent of the population are persuadable. Witnesses tend to bring others forward to testify, and the weight of evidence against Trump is likely to continue to grow over the next couple of months. It's premature to conclude from a handful of early surveys that the needle won't move.

Second, while I've been critical of the media's almost singular focus on the politics of impeachment, obviously they matter. And given how closely divided the country is, there's no reason to expect the kind of massive shift in public opinion about impeachment that we saw during the Watergate hearings, nor is such a shift necessary to dramatically impact the calculus of next year's elections. In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million, but won the Electoral College by eking out victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by margins of less than one percentage point. Everything else being equal, a shift of just a few percentage points against Trump would likely have a huge impact on next year's results up and down the ballot.

Finally, the impeachment of Donald Trump is not a partisan witch hunt--it's a serious conflict over the separation of powers, the Framers' central bulwark against tyranny. Court cases now pending will create precedents that will guide future American governments. And while we're witnessing the first draft of history being written, it won't be the last. Historians will have their say. And once freed from the fiery partisan emotions of the day, what happens now will likely impact how future generations view the relationship between Congress and the White House. Public opinion will shift and evolve over time in ways that we can't predict and that surveys can't measure. It really should be a small part of this story.

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