Some anti-Trump voters are ambivalent about impeaching him

U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One as he departs Washington for travel to Minnesota from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., October 10, 2019.  REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC16E7006B70

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If the recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll on impeachment is correct, many Americans pass this test.

When asked “Based on what you know at this point, do you support or oppose the impeachment of President Trump,” the electorate splits down the middle, with 49 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. But when asked a different question—“Given the Congressional investigation into Donald Trump, how do you think the future of Donald Trump’s presidency should be decided?”—only 36 percent answered “By the impeachment process” while 59 percent responded “At the ballot box.” About one quarter of the people who favored impeachment in the first question preferred an election to impeachment in the second.

Who are these Americans? They are neither Republican, conservative, nor 2016 Trump supporters. None of these overlapping groups reported any shift away from impeachment because virtually none of them favored it in the first place. But there were large swings in other portions of the electorate.

  • 87 percent of Democrats supported impeachment in question 1, but only 69 percent preferred impeachment to election in question 2—a shift of 18 points.
  • In response to question 1, Independents split down the middle, 47 percent to 46 percent. But in question 2, only 30 percent preferred impeachment to election—a shift of 17 points—while fully 65 percent preferred resolving the matter through an election.

The survey also examined the combined views of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, whose voting preference closely align with those of Democrats. In the first question, 86 percent of this group favored impeachment; in the second, only 65 percent favored impeachment over the electoral process, a shift of 21 points.

Surprisingly, this shift crosses ideological lines within the Democratic coalition. Among Democrats and leaners who regard themselves as progressive, the shift away from impeachment in the second question was 20 points, as was the shift among the self-styled moderates in this group. By contrast, age, education, and gender made little discernible difference.

One interpretation of these findings is that more than one in ten Americans believe that while President Trump’s warrants impeachment, they would nonetheless prefer to wait until the November 2020 election. This could change as the impeachment inquiry proceeds, of course. If not, the reluctance of these cross-pressured Americans to undo the results of the 2016 election will constitute a significant obstacles to the hopes of those who are determined to remove him from office before then.

There are other interpretations, of course. These results may reflect some voters’ skepticism that the congressional effort to remove the president from office has a realistic chance of succeeding in a polarized Senate. If so, they may regard waiting until the election as preferable to what President Trump is certain to describe as a Senate exoneration. Some voters may also be torn between their desire to draw a line against violations of basic constitutional standards and behavioral norms, and their fear that an unsuccessful impeachment and removal effort could further blur or even erase this line.

Each of these interpretations is possible; all are plausible. On the basis of existing information, we cannot determine which of them is dominant among the voters whose ambivalence these survey questions have revealed. But because these Americans could influence the outcome of the impeachment effort, elected officials as well as survey researchers have incentives to get to the bottom of it.