View profile

Matt's Five Points, July 30: Fine, I'll Talk About Impeachment

July 30 · Issue #11 · View online
Matt's Five Points
Welcome! I’m Matt Glassman, Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown. Here’s my regular newsletter that usually includes five points at the intersection of DC politics and political science, and often some links to interesting things I’ve been reading or listening to this week. 
In this issue, I discuss impeachment, a topic I’ve largely avoided for the better part of the last two years. I’ve mostly avoided it because I haven’t had a whole lot to say, and there are plenty of interesting and informative voices out there talking about it regularly. I’ve occasionally brought it up when I thought I had something useful to say, but that hasn’t been too often. (Here’s my quick primer on impeachment; and my discussion of the Question of Privilege in the House). But this week, a few things came up that I think I have some insight about. I also talk about the tricky nature of policy polling, and a few new books that I think are great. I’m also starting a podcast.
Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. And you can always catch up with me on Twitter. And please check out my new podcast version of Five Points.

You can't just be "for" or "against" impeachment.
Politicians aren’t light switches. Politics isn’t just position-taking.
One thing you can’t escape in Washington right now is the impeachment whip count in the Democratic party. That is, how many House Democrats have come out in favor of either opening an impeachment investigation of President Trump, or in favor of actually voting to impeach him.
The best and most detailed count is kept over at the Washington Post, and it currently reveals 107 of the 235 House Dems in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry, including 15 of 24 on the Judiciary Committee. In addition, several high profile non-House Democrats have come out this week in the wake of the Mueller hearing to support impeachment: Senator Patty Murray on Sunday, and Senator Debbie Stabenow on Monday.
These sorts of counts matter. But they don’t matter as much as people think. And that’s because, for many members on both sides of the issue, what they are doing is position-taking, which David Mayhew famously defined in The Electoral Connection as “the public enunciation of a judgmental statement” and one of the three main things (along with advertising and credit-claiming) that Members of Congress do in service of the electoral needs.
But here’s the rub: position-taking is only a small part of political action. It responds to a binary question: are you in favor (or not) of opening an impeachment inquiry? What it can’t tell us is the intensity of that preference. How much are you willing to fight to turn your position into an outcome? What portion of your resources and political capital are you willing to expend? What are you willing to burn down?
For most House Democrats in favor of impeachment, the answer right now is “I’m in favor of an inquiry, and I’ll push for one in public and maybe in private, but I’m not going to take concrete actions that interfere with the collective judgement of the party and its leadership in order to achieve my goals.” That is, close to half of the House Dems want to be on the record favoring impeachment, but almost none of them feel strongly enough about it to break the norms of party teamwork or sacrifice political capital that could cost them influence in other policy areas.
And make no mistake: a very small number of House Democrats could, if they felt strong enough, wreck serious havoc in the party and in the House. To being with, the leadership (or the majority) doesn’t even have primary agenda control over impeachment: any individual member can force an impeachment resolution on to the floor via a Question of Privilege. Congressman Green (D-TX) has done this three times in the past couple of years (each time the resolution was tabled, most recently with 95 Dems supporting the pro-impeachment position). Any Democrat could routinely force such a vote.
More importantly, less than 20 Democratic members could deny—or threaten to deny—floor control to the Democratic majority. The Dems have 235 seats in the House, you currently need 217 for a majority (there are 2 vacancies right now). Nineteen concerted Democrats, hellbent on making impeachment the central concern of the House right now, could lock up the leadership agenda by denying them the ability to pass special rules and control the floor. They could then, in theory, parlay this leverage in negotiations with the leadership. Or just demand the opening of an impeachment inquiry, and withhold their votes until they got it.
Members don’t tend to do this. It’s usually counterproductive, because most members of Congress have a variety of policy and political goals, and going to the mats by burning everything down in an attempt to achieve one of them usually sets you back on all the others. Any small group of members who tried to push the party like this over impeachment would likely find themselves ostracized, frozen out of future benefits and considerations, and perhaps worse off in terms of resources and standing for their next election.
But the shades of grey don’t have to be so stark. For any member who has taken the position that they would like to open an impeachment inquiry, there are a multitude of micro-actions that they may or may not be engaging in to further the underlying cause. They may be privately lobbying or bargaining with their colleagues (or not). They may be coordinating with pro-impeachment outside groups (or not). They may be pressuring the leadership privately (or not). They may be aggressively leaking things to the media (or not).
A good analogy to this is campaign endorsements. It’s obviously nice as a candidate to have the endorsement of major party figures. But there’s a massive difference in value between an endorsement that is nothing more than a position-taking announcement, and an endorsement that comes with joint appearances, fundraising help, resource-sharing, network-pooling, and media hits to aid your candidacy. Both have an impact—especially high-value endorsements from major national figures—but the latter is far more valuable.
And so this is a good reminder that there’s no magic number of House Democrats that will tip the leadership into moving forward with an impeachment inquiry. Part of the calculus will be based on the intensity of the preferences of the position-takers. If they are largely content to have taken the position (or even have a preference to have taken the position and not have an actual inquiry and/or vote), then well over a majority of the caucus might be publicly in favor of an inquiry and not get one. On the other hand, if you get anything near a majority of House Dems who are hellbent on impeachment and willing to sacrifice political capital for it, it will almost certainly happen.
My intuition? We are very much in the former situation right now. For many House Dems, the position-taking is the maximally productive scenario, both within the politics of the caucus, for their own representational needs, and for the trajectory of the party.
The vote count on an impeachment vote matters.
Whichever party is divided probably loses.
One endless debate in DC right now is whether impeaching President Trump in the House would be good for the Democratic Party politically.
The “no” case is pretty simple: impeachment is going nowhere in the Senate, so you aren’t removing the president. That means the best you could do is force a couple of swing state GOP Senators who are up for reelection (Gardner in CO, Collins in ME, McSally in AZ, maybe Tillis in NC) into a tough vote that they don’t really want to take, and saddle the president with the badge of having been impeached (which may actually help him). Weigh that against the negatives of forcing all the swing-seat House Dems from Trump districts to face the impeachment vote and then go defend their party brand in districts that Trump won in 2016, firing up the GOP base and possibly destroying your majority in the House and your prospects of winning the Senate and/or presidency.
The “yes” case isn’t without merit: by impeaching the president, House Democrats take a definitive stand that fires up their base, forces Senate Republicans to grapple with the question in a concrete way and tie themselves to a deeply unpopular president in many swing states, and sets up the 2020 election as a clear referendum on the conduct and fitness of the president for office. Finally, the president is unfit for office, and impeaching him is the right thing to do, regardless of the short-term political impacts.
You can go back and forth on this until the cows come home, and trust me, people around here certainly are. But this debate loses sight of how these sorts of politics shake out in reality; most importantly, there isn’t going to be a binary output from the House if and when they do decide to vote on impeachment. Instead, 435 Members are going to cast votes.
Right now, I’m with Seth Masket. The Democrats simply don’t currently have the votes to impeach the president:
There are 235 Democrats in the House. It takes 218 to impeach. Only 90 or so have called for an impeachment inquiry. Now, that doesn’t mean that the others are opposed to it, but they’re not exactly clamoring for it, either. Most likely, many of them, particularly those from competitive districts, are simply not sure what to do. They want to hold Trump accountable, but they don’t want to lose their jobs and cost their party the House in the process.
People tend to assume that leaders of legislative chambers have the power to build a majority on pretty much any issue they want. After all, they obviously have the confidence of their vast and ideologically diverse caucus; surely their caucus will go along with their judgment, especially if the leader is willing to take most of the political heat.
But that doesn’t accurately depict the nature of the power that Pelosi, or any House speaker, actually wields. There are two key things one needs to understand about the power a speaker has:
1. One power the speaker has is agenda control, and a speaker will almost never bring a bill to the floor that they are confident will lose, unless they are trying to discredit that bill or its authors.
2. It is very difficult to convince members to do things that they think will cost them their jobs. The majority has kept single-payer health plans, assault weapons bans, free college proposals, human life amendments, and more off the floor for fear they wouldn’t pass and would damage their colleagues’ political fortunes. Horse-trading doesn’t work that well with colleagues who have been fired by their constituents.
Pelosi most likely does not have a majority that supports impeachment right now, and it’s folly to assume that she can simply manufacture one.
(Do read Seth’s whole column)
But I want to go further than this. It’s not just that Pelosi doesn’t have a majority of the House for impeachment. It’s that getting a bare majority for an impeachment vote would be an unmitigated political disaster for the Democratic Party. Imagine a vote that was 220-215 in the House, with all Republicans voting against impeachment, along with 15 Democrats. All the media attention would be on the division among the Democrats. All the swing-state GOP Senators would be off the hook. The president would be trumpeting his coalition of bipartisan defenders, while simultaneously exploiting the Dem division in all the swing districts.
There’s a simple political principle here: things that unite your party or faction and divide the opposition are good for you, and things that divide your party or faction while uniting your opposition are bad for you. The most famous example of this, of course, is the lead-up to the civil war. Slavery tended to unite the South and divide the North. But secession tended to united the North and divide the South. Once the terms of debate shifted from slavery to secession, the North went from a weak hand that could chip away at the slave power to a powerful one that could muster public support for a war against it.
Likewise with the Democrats and Trump. Trump as president tends to unite the Democrats and divide Republicans. But impeaching Trump tends to unite Republicans and divide the Democrats. The strategic implications for the Dems are pretty clear: continue to hammer the president on policy and work to defeat him in 2020, but don’t impeach him. At least not until public opinion shifts to make impeachment divisive among Republicans.
And that’s really the key. Even a party-line impeachment, where all 235 Democrats (and probably independent Justin Amash) oppose all House Republicans isn’t some huge win for the Democrats. What would really make impeachment worthwhile for them would be if they knew they would get even a handful of GOP votes. A 242-193 vote is really what you want politically. Because then you have divided your opposition, and focused all media and public attention on that, while you remain united.
That, however, is unlikely. And it remains, in my mind, the key to why Pelosi and the Democratic leadership are completely uninterested in impeaching Trump. They don’t see it as politically beneficial, and they are convinced that, at best, they could muster 220-225 votes, which will only divide their party and weaken it’s standing going into the election.
Opinion polls about policy are bad electoral guides.
Taking the 70% popular position can cost you votes.
I’ve written about this before, but be very careful about taking single-issue polling and deciding it translates into obvious electoral effects for politicians who support or oppose it. Even if 70% or more of you constituency favors a particularly policy position, it does not follow that adopting that position can’t possibly cost you votes in the next election or hurt your approval rating among your constituents.
There are lots of examples of this (it certainly applies to impeachment), but let’s use gun control as an example because it is so starkly obvious. Imagine you are a member of Congress, and you poll your district and find out that 70% of the district favors banning handguns. In your last election, you got 55% of the vote. You might be tempted to think that supporting a handgun ban couldn’t possibly hurt you electorally. As every elected member of Congress knows, however, you would be dead wrong.
Imagine we have 100 random voters from your district standing in front of us. What do we know about them? Well, we can guess that about 70 of them support a handgun ban, and that about 30 of them oppose it. What else can we say about them, in regard to the politics of this situation? Well, not much. We are missing a lot of information, namely:
1. What were the voting preferences of the 70 and the 30 right now?
2. What will their voting preferences be if you support a handgun ban?
In other words, what effect does your action have on their vote?
The reason this is so important is that elections are not about repeatedly winning majoritarian support for individual policy decisions; they are about winning aggregate approval and winning indivisible votes. At the micro-level, the relationship is a simple equation: how many net votes did a particular policy decisions gain or cost you? If it gained you aggregate net votes, then from a pure electoral point of view, it’s a good thing. If it didn’t, it’s not.
The problem is that we don’t know how many votes would be gained or lost by favoring a handgun ban. For example, imagine that 45 out of the 70 who support a handgun ban were going to vote for you before you came out in favor, and that’s still the case. But 10 of the 30 who oppose the ban were previously going to vote for you, and now have all changed their mind. The net results for you is 10 votes lost. The opposite scenario — in which all 30 opponents were already not going to vote for you, and 55 of the 70 supporters of a ban were previously going to vote for you but now they all will — is also possible. That’s a net gain of 15 votes. More reasonable numbers can be plugged in for the underlying support and the patterns of switching, but the underlying result is the same: the aggregate level of support for the policy itself is more or less irrelevant.
And that’s the key here: the level of support for a policy choice may be correlated with approval or electoral support and/or net change in approval or electoral support, but it doesn’t have to be. The only way the issue polling data could be definitive in its effect is if all Americans were single-issue votes. But they aren’t, so we need more information.
Ask yourself which is a bigger number: the number of voters who previously opposed you who will join your coalition if you support a handgun ban, or the number of people in your coalition who might desert you if you supported one. Those two numbers combine to the net approval effect, and that’s the number we’re interested in. In regard to gun control, there are almost always more people who will desert you if you support it.
Lurking behind this is the issue of intensity of preference. Ask 100 people how they feel about a policy issue, and you’ll find that some oppose it and others support it. But only a small portion of those people will consider it relevant to their vote choice on election day or their general approval of a politician, and an even smaller fraction will be single-issue voters/approvers on the topic. When those intensities are not evenly distributed among the opinion, that’s a good recipe for the electoral/approval effects to be strongly skewed in reference to the policy opinion numbers.
This is what makes gun control such a strange issue. The vast majority of people—for some polices, over 90%—favor adding certain restrictions. But virtually none of those people are single-issue voters; they base their vote choice on other policy areas. But the 10% who oppose things like background checks? They are almost all single-issue gun voters. If any of them are in your vote coalition, then adopting a policy that is 90% popular in your district may very well cost you votes. For all the talk about the money and power of the NRA, this is why gun rights is so strong politically: it has lots of single-issue voters, who will not hesitate to desert you if you oppose their policy preferences.
You should read these three books.
They are a crash-course on contemporary national politics.
I just finished reading Tim Alberta’s new book, American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump. It is a masterpiece of DC journalistic writing, and destined to become the definitive account of the GOP during this past decade. It is incredibly sourced, razor-sharp in its analysis, and provides an even-handed treatment of everyone while pulling no punches.
It is also beautifully written and narrated. The writing puts your typical DC book to shame, and the pacing resembles a sturdy novel. Tim is an expert at blending narrative scenes, player profiles, and broader analysis. Just get it.
American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump: Tim Alberta: 9780062896445: Books
And if you are looking for the perfect intermediate course for understanding national politics, I recommend pairing American Carnage with two recent political science book. First, Nolan McCarty’s new Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know, which is by far the best concise treatment of the most important topic in politics today. It’s incredibly accessible, well-written, and informative. You will be quickly up to speed on how to think about the causes and consequences of polarization; decades of political science research is reviewed in a clear, engaging, and straightforward manner.
Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know®: Nolan McCarty: 9780190867775: Books
Second, Assymetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, by Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins. This book provides a convincing and simple explanation for why the observed behavior of the two major parties is often so different, and how that difference manifests itself in all aspects of contemporary politics. Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (9780190626600): Matt Grossmann, David A. Hopkins: Books
I'm starting a companion podcast to this newsletter.
Soon you’ll be able to hear me drone on about politics.
So I’m starting a podcast, as a companion to this newsletter. I’m not really sure how this is going to go, but here’s what I’m envisioning: something that is between 10 and 20 minutes long, and gives you a bunch of short, informed takes at the intersection of political science and current politics. You know, like my newsletter.
Episode zero can be found here.
The RSS feed is available now, and the podcast will be on Itunes, Spotify, and all the all rest shortly.
Please take a listen, and I’d love to get your feedback on everything: content, structure, sound quality, cover art (below), and all the rest.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back again in two weeks! In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email. I’d love to hear from you!
Did you enjoy this issue?
In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue