Impeachment and Public Opinion

by Whit Ayres as published November 17, 2019 in The Wall Street Journal.

As the nation tumbles toward the 2020 presidential elections, it seems also on course for its second presidential impeachment in a little more than two decades. It all looks like so much chaos, but our likely path forward is illuminated by polls about the Bill Clinton impeachment in the 1990s and predictions from one of America’s most prolific Founding Fathers.

While the Clinton and Trump impeachment efforts differ dramatically on the politics and allegations involved, one similarity offers tantalizing parallels that could predict how the public reacts to the current investigation. Unlike the Nixon impeachment inquiry in 1973-74, the Clinton and Trump impeachment drives evoked an overwhelmingly strong partisan reaction. In both instances, stalwart party members on either side defended behavior they would roundly condemn in a president of the other party. How Voters Saw ClintonSurvey results during his impeachmentSource: Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, 6/7/98-10/7/98;ABC News Poll 10/25/98-2/8/99%AcquittalImpeachment voteApprove JobDisapprove JobShould Not Be Impeached & RemovedShould Be Impeached & RemovedJuly ’98Sept.Nov.Jan. ’99020406080

The inquiry was such a partisan affair that Mr. Clinton’s impeachment had virtually no effect on his job approval. He began the summer of 1998 with solid popular support, 60% job approval to only 34% disapproval according to Gallup data. Throughout the impeachment saga his approval never dipped below 60%, and actually bounced up to 73% immediately after the Dec. 19, 1998, House vote to impeach him. By the time the Senate acquitted him on Feb. 12, 1999, his job approval was still a robust 65%. 

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