Since the last poll conducted by CNN and SSRS, support for removing Trump has nudged upward only slightly. Trump’s job approval has remained unchanged at 43 percent.
There’s an argument among some Democrats that support for removing Trump from office would increase if Democratic leaders in the House were simply to force the issue: begin the process of impeaching Trump and hold hearings drawing attention to Trump’s actions including those documented in the report released in April by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
To bolster that argument, many advocates of the strategy point to graphs such as the one below, created by Pew Research Center with remarkable prescience in August 2014 — back when Trump’s public image was mostly centered on his having hosted a television show.
While Pew’s article adds some context to the way in which those two lines move, its assessment is fairly clear: Nixon’s approval dropped as a function of the Senate’s hearings into Watergate and, once that happened, support for removing him from office climbed. Ergo: Start the hearings, oust Trump.
As is often the case, the reality isn’t quite so simple.
Notice, first of all, the unusualness of Trump’s position relative to that of Nixon. Trump’s approval is already fairly low relative to Nixon and support for removing him from office fairly high. Trump’s approval is akin to what Nixon’s was in June 1973 — when support for removing him from office was under 20 percent. Support for removal is about where it was for Nixon in February 1974 — when he was already at 25 percent approval.
That chart of approval ratings shared by Pew does show how Nixon’s approval ratings sagged after the Watergate hearings started. By the time Nixon fired the independent counsel and his attorney general in October 1973 as part of an effort to stymie the probe, his approval was about as low as it was going to get.
What happened during that period was that his approval dropped across the board. Both Democrats and Republicans viewed Nixon much more favorably at the beginning of 1973 than they did at the end.
Compare that with the change in approval that Trump has seen over the course of his presidency. As we’ve pointed out before, Trump’s approval ratings are remarkably stable — a function of strongly held positions by members of both parties. Republicans love Trump and Democrats hate him.
In fact, only at the very beginning of Trump’s presidency did Democrats view his job performance more favorably than they viewed Nixon’s at his worst point. The peak of Republican approval of Nixon from 1973 on is about where Trump has been with members of his own party since late last year.
That gulf between the parties is dramatic. On average, in Gallup’s polling, Republicans have viewed Trump 78 points more favorably than have Democrats. For Nixon, that average was 42 points.
That’s important for a number of reasons, but none more than this: That constant support for Trump from Republicans is despite the breadth of damaging information that’s already out.
Democrats think Trump should be impeached for things they already know about, primarily the instances of attempted obstruction documented in Mueller’s report. Many of those incidents had been known about for months before Mueller’s report coming out, as had a number of other questionable acts by the president such as his ongoing relationship with his private company.
It’s quite possible that investigations into Trump’s activity will uncover new details which might further push the needle toward support for removing him from office. But if the impeachment process focuses mostly on what’s in Mueller’s report, it’s a steeper uphill climb to convince those Trump supporters already convinced of what Mueller’s report shows that what’s documented in it demands Trump’s removal.
In 1973 and 1974, the Senate hearings ran in parallel to and fostered new revelations about Nixon’s actions, culminating in mid-1974 with the release of recordings in which Nixon can be heard explicitly advocating for obstructing the Watergate probe. The hearings, which most Americans told Gallup they watched, helped build a new case against Nixon as opposed to revisiting past evidence about what he’d done. That would have been part of the push to impeach Nixon, which was just heating up when he resigned.
Perhaps Democratic investigations will have a similar effect. But there’s a reason that Trump and his allies are throwing up every conceivable roadblock to the House Democrats’ investigations. Any new detail that comes out might help nudge Americans toward more skepticism of the president — so the president aims to have few to no new details come out.
Then there’s the issue of people actually tuning in to the hearings. In an interview with Rolling Stone several years ago, Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean made a telling remark.
“Nixon might have survived if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today,” Dean said.
While that claim itself is hard to evaluate, it’s obviously true that Trump’s robust support from Republicans stems to some extent from the robust defense he gets every night on Fox. After Mueller’s news conference last week, we watched Fox’s prime-time coverage of the event. The special counsel was “sleazy and dishonest,” according to Tucker Carlson, and was “basically full of crap,” according to Sean Hannity. Mueller was “a career bureaucrat, nothing but a Trump-hating partisan, who is now all but cheering for impeachment based on nothing,” Hannity said. Mueller was a “lifelong [product] of the Washington legal establishment that at its core reviles a man such as Trump,” Laura Ingraham said.
If we go back to the graph above comparing CNN’s polling to what Nixon saw, it’s probably the February 1974 comparison that’s most apt. There’s been evidence presented through the special counsel, and about 4 in 10 Americans think that Trump should be ousted as a result. It’s just that Trump’s approval remains steady because his support from his own party is similarly constant.
But there’s another lesson from that era. In February 1974, only 12 percent of Republicans felt that Nixon should be impeached, according to data shared with The Post’s Greg Sargent. That’s about twice the percentage of Republicans that currently feel that way. Then, about half of Democrats thought Nixon should be ousted; three-quarters of Democrats currently do. The slight rise in support for impeachment since April was a function of a seven-point increase in support from Democrats.
Views of impeachment are also starkly polarized. The lesson, then, isn’t that renewed attention to Trump’s actions will change minds. The lesson, looking at his approval rating, should probably be that minds are unlikely to change no matter what.