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Americans Are Split On Impeachment Inquiry, Poll Numbers Reflect

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are so very many questions surrounding the whistleblower's complaint against President Trump and the Democrats' impeachment inquiry. And in all of it, it is impossible to ignore the political context. The 2020 election is just a year away. Ben Domenech, publisher of the conservative publication The Federalist, told us yesterday that President Trump and his team believe the impeachment inquiry could be good for him politically.

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BEN DOMENECH: They look at the polls, and they see a situation where there's actually less support now than there was for impeachment about a year ago. And they also look at a scenario where independent voters in particular are turned off by impeachment. They may not like the president themselves, but they're not ready to see him removed from office.

MARTIN: Now, we should say the latest poll from NPR, "PBS NewsHour" and Marist, which was taken Wednesday, found Americans are split on the impeachment inquiry. Forty-nine percent approve. Forty-six percent disapprove. We're going to hear now from a pollster who's been watching Republican reaction for many years. Whit Ayres is with North Star Opinion Research. Thanks so much for being with us.

WHIT AYRES: Good morning.

MARTIN: So from what you have seen of the polls, is there any way this impeachment inquiry could actually help President Trump? I mean, no president wants to be impeached. It is a stain.

AYRES: No president wants to be impeached. But before this latest Ukraine controversy, a majority of Americans, 55 to 60%, opposed impeaching President Trump. That's almost exactly the same percentage that opposed impeaching President Clinton in 1998. When the Republicans impeached Clinton anyway, the only number that moved was a negative rating of the Republican Party. The Democrats went on to win five more seats in the House that fall. Now, the allegations are very different in this case, but we'll have to see if the latest revelations change the impeachment numbers.

MARTIN: What does tend to change people's minds?

AYRES: The people to watch who might change their minds are those who disapprove of Donald Trump's job performance as president but who still oppose impeachment. That's about 15% of the electorate. They oppose impeachment for any number of reasons - because they don't think the things they disapprove of rise to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor, or because they think it'll tear the country apart unnecessarily just a year before the next election. But if anyone's going to be more pro-impeachment, it will be this group of people.

MARTIN: You rightly point out that back in the '90s, after the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton in the House, they did pay a political price. But it was just a handful of seats they lost. It wasn't enough to switch control.

AYRES: What's unusual about the 1998 case is that the president's party almost never picks up House seats in an off-year election. And in this case, the pattern was reversed with President Clinton's party gaining five seats in the 1998 midterms. So that's an unusual event caused by reaction against the Republicans impeaching President Clinton.

MARTIN: When can we look to see new polls coming out that will be informed by the impeachment inquiry?

AYRES: We need several days for people to digest what they heard yesterday and then look to maybe the middle of next week before we'll get some valid data. Even then, we'll need to watch the polls closely as the impeachment inquiry proceeds because people will learn more and more about it. But it's important to note that President Trump's job approval has been incredibly stable, varying only a point or two on the average from 43 or 44%. So it's going to take a momentous event to shift public opinion significantly about the president.

MARTIN: Whit Ayres of North Star Opinion Research. Thank you so much for your time.

AYRES: Surely. Happy to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.