The Magazine

Impeachment Hasn't Hurt

House Republicans, it seems, won't be punished at the polls after all

Jul 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 40 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Majorities of Americans disapproved, in particular, of the impeachment vote; in general, of Republicans' "handling" of the matter; and generically, of Republicans. Polls asking people whether they planned to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress tilted sharply in favor of Democrats, reaching about a 9 percent Democratic lead in most surveys. Even proprietary GOP polling by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates in early 1999 offered little comfort to Republicans. It found 36 percent of Americans saying that impeachment "will be a factor" in the 2000 congressional elections and, of them, 51 percent would be either "much less likely" or "somewhat less likely" to "vote for your representative if you knew they voted to impeach Bill Clinton." The total of "much more likely" and "somewhat more likely" was 48 percent. If, in short, Republicans were gloomy and Democrats gleeful, there was ample justification in the polls for their respective sentiments.

But that was then. Anyone looking at the answers to the same kinds of poll questions now has to be struck by how the public's feelings have changed. One may argue over what such a shift means, but the absence of any continuity from 18 months ago is indisputable. It's almost as if the United States changed electorates sometime between the impeachment votes and now.

Start with the generic congressional ballot: Republicans are now running even or ahead in most polls. That Fabrizio, McLaughlin polling question the GOP once found so worrisome shows a slight decline in the number of people who say impeachment "will be a factor" in their congressional vote, from 36 percent to 34 percent, but a huge swing among those who say it will be a factor in favor of the GOP. From 48 percent in 1999, now 67 percent say that a vote in favor of impeachment would make them "much more" or "somewhat more likely" to vote for their representative, while only 26 percent say such a vote would make them "much less" or "somewhat less likely" to do so.

And when voters are asked directly about impeachment, the results are nothing short of astonishing. In December 1998, Gallup asked adults whether they approved or disapproved of the House vote to impeach. Sixty-three percent disapproved and 35 percent approved. The same question a year later yielded 50 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval. An April Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asked registered voters whether "the decision of the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach President Clinton was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do." They said "right thing" by a margin of 49-44. In December 1998, the same pollsters had asked, if the House voted to impeach Clinton, should the Senate then vote to convict and remove him. The response was no, 57-37. In April 2000, the response to the question of whether the Senate vote to acquit was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do was a statistical tie, with a narrow 47-46 plurality actually saying "wrong thing."

At the anecdotal level, the promised targeting of Republicans seems to have been overblown. The initial flush of reporting identified Steve Chabot of Ohio and Bob Barr of Georgia as potential Democratic targets, but neither now appears much in danger. Most managers were (perhaps not coincidentally) from relatively safe Republican seats, and only one, Jim Rogan of California, looks like he faces serious reelection trouble. And while impeachment has generated big contributions for his opponent, Adam Schiff, it has also generated big contributions for Rogan. Given the stakes and the narrowness of the GOP majority, this highly competitive district would have been fiercely contested even without impeachment. And as far as the two campaigns are concerned, Rogan is finding it advantageous to play up his role as impeachment prosecutor and Schiff is looking for other issues. Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the key point is, "Schiff isn't talking about it" -- because the impeachment issue has no salience. Eric Smith, his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says, by contrast, Schiff "doesn't have to bring it up" -- voters are aware of Rogan's role, and it "removed the veneer of moderation" from him.