One of the defining — and depressing — realities of our politics today is the intense power of party loyalty: how Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly vote for candidates from their own party, tend to dislike the other party and put partisanship above all else. This tribalism seems to explain everything in politics, even the most baffling phenomena, such as the stability of President Trump’s approval rating. Almost every poll story inevitably includes the phrase “breaks along partisan lines” because some question or issue always cleanly separates Republicans and Democrats.
But in a pleasant surprise, polling around Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election, a subject of bitter division, suggests that Americans are remembering that they have values beyond partisan politics.
It’s easy to forget this, or to believe that it’s no longer possible, but there are places where partisanship wobbles; where some other powerful force, value or experience competes with party loyalty and pushes the numbers around. Recent polling suggests that Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia can bend partisanship in that way. Americans let partisanship guide them on some questions around Mueller, but concerns about ethics, rule of law and whether the president committed a crime really do seem to compete with party loyalty and change minds on key questions around the Mueller probe.
On the basic details of the Mueller investigation — if Mueller can be trusted, if the investigation is politically motivated — the numbers look similar to what you might see in a presidential approval poll.
A January CBS poll showed that 45 percent of respondents (and 83 percent of Republicans) believe that the investigation is politically motivated and 50 percent of respondents (and 84 percent of Democrats) believe that it’s justified. The Pew Research Center found that throughout 2018, about 55 to 60 percent of U.S. adults were either somewhat or very confident that Mueller was conducting a fair investigation. In recent Monmouth University polls, 43 to 46 percent of respondents thought the special counsel’s investigation (they appear to not use Mueller’s name in the question) should end and 51 to 54 percent said it should continue.
Trump’s overall numbers aren’t so different. Major aggregates put his approval rating in the low-to-mid 40s and his disapproval rating in the mid-50s. Some polls find a wider gap — The Post recently found 57 percent believed Mueller was mainly interested in finding the truth while only 36 percent believed that he was mostly focused on hurting Trump politically. But at the very least, partisanship seems to serve as a sort of anchor for the basic numbers on Mueller.
But when you get into the details — whether Trump is handling the investigation well, whether people want to see the results, whether Mueller is doing a good job and should be protected legally — the numbers start to look different.
CNN has been asking respondents if they approve of the Russia investigation since 2017, and they often put Trump’s numbers on this issue in the low 30s. In these same polls, Mueller’s approval rating tended to be in the mid-to-high 40s and net positive (more people approve than disapprove), though 12 to 20 percent didn’t have an opinion. The more recent Post poll found a big gap, with 51 percent approving of Mueller and 34 percent disapproving.
And people seem to be both interested in these results and ready to take them seriously.
A November Monmouth poll (fielded around the time former attorney general Jeff Sessions was fired) found that 60 percent supported “requiring the approval of a panel of federal judges before any special counsel could be fired by the president or attorney general” and only 31 percent opposed that requirement.
In the Post poll, 81 percent of respondents think Mueller’s final report should be made public. The survey also found that 56 percent were more inclined to accept Mueller’s version of the fact’s than Trump’s, while 33 percent want to trust Trump more. Maybe most significantly, 65 percent said they would support impeachment and removal from office if Trump were to commit obstruction of justice by interfering with the probe.
People aren’t sure what’s going to come out of the probe — a January poll from The Post showed 43 percent had either a great deal or good deal of confidence that Mueller’s final report will be fair, while 22 percent had no confidence and 28 percent had just some confidence. But, on balance, it seems as though most Americans are interested in what Mueller has to say and willing to judge it on the merits.
The Mueller probe in general seems like something that could eventually put some cracks in the partisan walls that divide us. Trump frequently calls the investigation a witch hunt, but it seems that most Americans, including some Republicans, want to know what Mueller will find. Our common curiosity isn’t enough to heal all of our differences. But it could remind us that we share some of the same values.