Former Republican senator Jeff Flake made headlines recently when he declared that he knew of “at least 35” Republican senators who would support ousting Donald Trump from office if their votes were taken in a secret ballot. In the debate over the president’s impeachment, this means that what’s stopping many Republicans on Capitol Hill from rejecting Trump isn’t their conscience – but instead fear of political backlash. Yet is this fear actually warranted?
The answer is crucial because of how impeachment operates. Even if Democrats – who hold a majority in the House of Representatives – can vote to impeach the president without Republican support, they can’t gain the two-thirds majority necessary in the Senate to remove Trump from office without significant Republican backing.
Conventional wisdom is that Republican leaders would pay a hefty price from conservative voters for turning on the president in a public way. According to Gallup, for example, Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters stood at a strong 87% in late September. And a Washington Post-Schar School poll in the first week of October revealed that 71% of Republican voters disapproved of launching a formal impeachment inquiry.
Yet even amid what appears like stalwart support for Trump among his notoriously loyal base, there’s reason to think that congressional Republicans have more leeway to mutiny than they think. For one thing, a key lesson from Watergate is that public opinion can change abruptly in the heat of an impeachment inquiry. As new revelations emerged about President Richard Nixon’s crimes, his approval ratings tumbled.
Even more important, however, is what we know about the preferences of Americans – and how politicians can get them wrong. Recent research on US politics suggests that political elites, including elected officials, often misread their voters by thinking that they’re more conservative than they in fact are. As a consequence, Republican leaders may be overestimating the extent to which the public wants them to defend Trump.
Misperceiving the US electorate
In a 2018 study, for example, political scientists David Broockman and Christopher Skovron surveyed more than 3,700 state legislators to see if they really knew how the public felt about a broad range of policy issues, including gun control and abortion. They found that not only did politicians think voters were more conservative than they were, but Republican officials were most prone to mis-estimations. My own ongoing analysis with my colleague Jonathan Monten also reveals that, at the national level, political elites perceive the public as more supportive of Trump’s “America First” agenda than it really is.
Ultimately, political elites are swayed by anecdotes. This can be problematic, as Broockman and Skovron observe, if certain groups are disproportionately vocal in espousing their view. Political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, for example, show in their research that this has been most true of conservatives in recent years. Right-wing activists, from wealthy donors such as the Koch family and its network, to those on talk radio, have projected power that far exceeds their actual numbers.
With this in mind, it’s true that most Republican voters don’t want Trump impeached. Yet that hardly means they’re as united as many politicians perceive or that they’d vote against congressional Republicans in the next election for turning on the president. It could also be that pro-Trump views against impeachment are only weakly held – or at least highly malleable.
A unique case?
A possible caveat, of course, is that Trump might not conform to “normal” political rules. The so-called “Teflon president” has already proven stunningly resilient – even in the face of scandal after scandal. So perhaps conservative voters would revolt if congressional Republicans betrayed Trump by supporting right-wing challengers in the primaries, or by not turning out to vote at all in 2020. Yet, Republican leaders won’t know unless they try, and it seems just as likely they’d win moderate votes by standing up to the president.
In the coming weeks, congressional Republicans might ask themselves whether they’d really face the kind of political reprisal for supporting the impeachment of Trump that they fear. It could be that, on the whole, the American electorate isn’t only much less conservative than Republican leaders perceive – but also much more open to showing an embattled president the door.