With a House vote to impeach President Trump imminent, a trial in the Senate is all but inevitable. Much less clear is how that trial would affect Trump’s re-election chances in 2020.
The House impeachment hearings, with its testimony by 12 witnesses, produced days of headlines, including Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s assertion that Trump asked for a quid pro quo with Ukraine, and Russia expert Fiona Hill’s assertion that Ukraine meddling in the US election was a “fictional narrative.”
But they didn’t have much effect on Trump in the polls: According to a FiveThirtyEight average of polls, 48 percent of Americans support removing Trump, with 46 percent opposed. That’s basically where the numbers fell before the hearings began.
Yet the hearings haven’t helped Trump’s re-election chances either: A Dec. 10 Quinnipiac poll found six Democratic candidates would beat Trump in a general election, and frontrunner Joe Biden would best him 52 to 41 percent.
The format of a Senate trial is unclear. Reports indicate that witnesses are unlikely to be called. Both House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell are said to favor a quick resolution. The Republican Senate is unlikely to convict and remove Trump.
And don’t expect those proceedings to have much effect on 2020, local experts say.
“I think the net effect, in terms of increasing approval of what Democrats are doing or decreasing Trump’s popularity as the result of it, will turn out to be a wash in the short term,” says Robert Y. Shapiro, professor of political science at Columbia University. “In the long term, assuming this happens quickly, it will become a more distant memory by the time of the election.”
That could change if the Democrats continue their investigations into Trump’s conduct. Democrats filed a court case to force White House counsel Don McGahn to testify to Congress after the White House barred him from doing so. It’s unclear whether that court case would continue after an impeachment trial, with Democrats still seeking testimony from McGahn, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former security adviser John Bolton and others. If so, “it continues to be a cloud over the Trump administration,” says Shapiro.
There’s a risk that Americans have tuned out over the course of the House hearings, leaving little appetite to follow any Senate trial. “My guess is that in the court of public opinion, not many people are going to be moved by it,” says George Picoulas, professor of political science at Pace University. “Most Americans have made up their minds. What’s going on is political theater to engage the base within two political parties. But we don’t know what kind of theater we’re going to see in the Senate.”
Some political observers speculated that impeachment proceedings would fire up Trump’s base. The Dec. 10 Quinnipiac poll found Trump’s job approval rating at 41 percent, nearly unchanged. It’s unclear whether that base will be enough to win 2020’s battleground states. Trump has not taken many steps to grow that coalition during his first term, and impeachment proceedings seem not to have gained him new followers.
Meanwhile, the Democratic base remains highly activated, and the swing voters who gave Trump a try in 2016 — suburban women and former Obama voters — may already be turned off enough to swing back to the Democrats.
“This is basically still bad news for the Trump administration, to have an impeached president running in 2020,” says Shapiro. “I think the election is the Democrats’ to lose. It almost doesn’t matter who they run, as long as they rally around that candidate.”
“The consensus, at least what I hear from my sources, is that if the Democrats get their base out, it will be more than enough to win,” says Picoulas. “On the assumption that President Trump has not increased his coalition.”