The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To avoid removal, Trump needs senators representing only 7 percent of the country to support him

The House impeachment vote, however, largely mirrored what Americans in those districts wanted.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke on the Senate floor on Dec. 19 after the House impeached President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)
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It is the nature of a representative democracy that people will sometimes be represented by politicians with whom they disagree. Ask a Republican in New York City how they feel about their representatives or ask a Democrat, well, anywhere, how they feel about their president. It’s the trade-off of having elections.

In general, though, the system works — in part because representatives generally reflect the will of the majority of people they represent. That was largely true following Wednesday’s vote in the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump. It will probably be less true once the impeachment fight moves to the Senate.

About 53 percent of the House members who voted Wednesday supported impeachment. Because each district in the House is about the same size, that means that 53 percent of the population of the country lives in districts whose members of Congress supported impeachment.

To our original point, that doesn’t mean that everyone in those districts supported how their representatives were voting. Compared with Post-ABC News polling completed this month, the vote in the House was more strongly pro-impeachment than are Americans overall. Support for impeachment in the House edged out opposition by about eight percentage points. In our poll, support for impeachment (and removal) was three points higher than opposition.

In the Senate, where that vote on removal will take place, the picture is very different. There hasn’t been a vote on impeachment yet, and in fact most senators haven’t even stated a position on the issue. (Many, but not all, are declining to offer a position, acting under the theory that they are jurors in Trump’s impeachment trial.)

If we assume a party-line vote (which is essentially what happened in the House), 53 percent of senators would oppose impeachment — but more than half the country would live in states whose senators favored impeachment. (For these calculations, we assigned half of the state’s population to each senator to account for states with split-party senators. Independents were presumed to support removal.)

That opposition to impeachment also means that a party-line Senate vote would even less accurately reflect public polling. The difference between our theoretical Senate vote margin and the Post poll is nine points; for the House it was a bit under five points.

Isn’t this just a way to say that “the Senate isn’t representative of the population?” Sure. But that manifests in interesting ways on this particular issue.

Consider, for example, that it requires 67 votes in the Senate to oust Trump from office. That means that 34 votes are needed to preserve his position. Even if he were deeply unpopular, if Trump maintained support from senators in 17 states, he could keep his job. Meaning, in the most extreme scenario, that he could be impeached but not removed from office if senators from the 17 least-populous states — representing about 7 percent of the population — decided to stand by him.

In the House, representatives’ votes on impeachment probably didn’t frustrate that many people. About 66 percent of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 live in districts whose representatives supported impeachment; about 60 percent of Trump voters live in districts whose representatives opposed it.

Most white Americans live in districts whose members opposed impeachment in the House, while 65 percent of black and 71 percent of Hispanic Americans live in districts whose members supported it.

In general, that mirrored polling. Whites were about 11 percentage points more likely to live in districts whose members opposed impeachment and, according to the Post-ABC News poll, oppose impeachment and removal by about 13 points. Hispanic Americans were 42 points more likely to live in pro-impeachment districts (so to speak), a bit wider than the margin of support for impeachment in the poll.

Interestingly, because men more broadly oppose impeachment, the gap between the percentage of men who live in pro-impeachment districts and their views of it was broad, about 16 points. Among women, who generally support impeachment, the gap was much smaller.

In the Senate, things don’t line up as neatly. Again assuming a party-line vote, white Americans would be about as likely to be represented by a pro- as anti-impeachment senator. Black Americans, though, thanks to the density of the black population in Southern states, would be much more likely to be represented by a anti-impeachment senator. Overall, 6 in 10 nonwhite Americans in our poll supported impeachment.

The result is that both Hispanic and white Americans would have their views on impeachment less well represented in a party-line vote in the Senate.

Again: This is how the Senate works! It’s intended to be a different type of representative body. In a moment when there’s a lot of attention paid to the vagaries of the Constitution (impeachment, the electoral college), we should not be surprised by the extent to which the Senate deviates from national trends.

In this case, however, there’s an added significance to how the Senate works. Impeachment passed in the House by a modest margin. In the Senate, Trump’s existing advantage is only heightened on this critical vote.