Poll: Americans Split on House Impeachment Inquiry But That Could Change : The NPR Politics Podcast Americans are split, 49%-46%, on whether they approve of Democrats' impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and independents at this point are not on board, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll finds. This episode: political correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, senior political editor Domenico Montanaro, and editor correspondent Ron Elving. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Poll: Americans Split on House Impeachment Inquiry But That Could Change

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Poll: Americans Split on House Impeachment Inquiry But That Could Change

Poll: Americans Split on House Impeachment Inquiry But That Could Change

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  • Transcript

CATHERINE: Konnichi wa. This is Catherine (ph).

MICK: And Mick. And we're here in Kobe, Japan, for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. We're about to watch England versus U.S.A. We hope our marriage will survive this encounter.

CATHERINE: This podcast was recorded at...


1:37 p.m. on Friday, September 27.

CATHERINE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.

MICK: Go England.



DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I don't really think of Japan as a rugby country.

KHALID: I didn't think the U.S. really had a rugby team.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: I didn't know they had a rugby team.

MONTANARO: Of course the U.S. has a rugby team.

KHALID: I thought it was, like, a British sport...

MONTANARO: We have a cricket team. We have everything.

KHALID: ...Or a Commonwealth sport.

MONTANARO: This is the United States of America.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: We play every sport.

KHALID: I think I stepped into some nationalistic territory (laughter).

MONTANARO: We just do.

ELVING: Right.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, senior editor correspondent.

KHALID: Domenico, let's start with you. NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist has a new poll out this week that explores where public opinion is on the issue of impeachment. So what was the clear top line of this poll?

MONTANARO: Well, the clear top line is - surprise, surprise - Americans are split on impeachment (laughter). They don't necessarily support the House opening an impeachment inquiry. It's 49 to 46 people approving of it - 46% disapproving of it. And the big key for Democrats here is that independents are not sold on it. Forty-four percent of independents say that they approve; fifty percent of independents say they disapprove, so Democrats have some work to do. We really should caveat this, though, because this was a one-night poll. It was just Wednesday night. It was...

KHALID: So before the whistleblower complaint.

MONTANARO: It was before the whistleblower complaint, after we got the White House notes of the official record of the call between the president and the president of Ukraine. So a lot can change. This is a fluid situation. And the pollsters warn in particular because so many people said that they are paying attention to the news. Independents were lower on the list of paying attention to the news, and as they become more engaged, their opinion very well could change.

ELVING: Well, and let's look back to what happened in past impeachments. I mean, let's face it - impeachment as a concept is disruptive. It's not popular. It's kind of earthshaking. Most people would rather have the earth stay stable under their feet. So back in the Nixon days, while people look back on that as a huge scandal and a huge exposure of a scandal, when the Senate hearings began on Richard Nixon in the summer of 1973, only 19% of the people in the country...

KHALID: Oh wow.

ELVING: ...Even though they'd already learned a lot about this burglary and this cover-up, only 19% of Americans wanted to see the president impeached and removed from office. It finally ticks above 50% in the week before the president resigns. And that was the popular impeachment. Bill Clinton's impeachment popularity was way, way down. In fact, on the month he was impeached, Bill Clinton had the support of most of the country. Only 30% of the people wanted him impeached and removed from office.

KHALID: And so Deirdre, you spent a lot of time - you pay attention what's happening up on Capitol Hill. We had a number of moderate Democrats who shifted their opinion, who openly came out and said that they do support an impeachment inquiry. Is this - is your sense that by these moderate Democrats shifting their opinion - a sign that maybe these polls aren't capturing entirely what public opinion sentiment is? How do you interpret what the moderates did?

WALSH: I think in their case - and the group that came out signed an op-ed that was in The Washington Post, which sort of set off sort of new momentum about this issue this week, and it was such a fast-moving story, that was such, I think, a key point that kept the discussion and the momentum going.

But for that group - they all are freshmen Democrats with national security backgrounds - and what they learned, to them, was a clear national security concern. And they made the calculation that this was something that they understood more abruptly, and they thought their constituents would understand. I think we'll find out when they go home if that bears out.

KHALID: Domenico, I want to ask you about one nugget, though, from this poll that caught my eye, and that is the favorability of both Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. And maybe this is no surprise, hugely, but I mean, I was intrigued to see the - Donald Trump, his job approval seems to be tracking better than Nancy Pelosi's.

MONTANARO: Well, Donald Trump is, like, super consistent, right? I mean, none of his numbers have ever been very good. I mean, he's overall 44% job approval in this poll. That's about where he's been since he was sworn in, right? That's no surprise.

KHALID: Among the whole public, you're saying?

MONTANARO: Among everybody, right? And among independents, slightly lower than that, but it's about where it's been. Nancy Pelosi - we haven't really tested Nancy Pelosi, and I really wanted to see where she would track in this, and she's lower than Trump. Thirty-nine percent of people say that they approve of the job...

KHALID: I thought that was surprising.

MONTANARO: Well, and look inside the numbers - there's a big reason for it. As you go into this impeachment fight, what we've learned is that Republicans are far more strongly backing Trump. Ninety percent of Republicans now say they approve of the job he's doing versus just 74% of Democrats who say they approve of Nancy Pelosi.

WALSH: And you'll see a lot more of Nancy Pelosi. I mean, she's been doing a lot more national media interviews. I think she recognizes that part of the job she needs to do is to provide cover for her members who are now publicly out there for an impeachment inquiry. And once the horse is out of the barn, they have to deal with the political repercussions of what that means. So she's out there talking about why they're doing that. And I think we'll see whether or not that changes her ratings, but she traditionally has had very low approval ratings and as do most congressional leaders.

ELVING: And that is a good point to make. I believe Mitch McConnell is probably lower even than that.

MONTANARO: Probably? He's the worst rated of all of those.

ELVING: And that is traditional that congressional leaders do not do well in these kinds of approval polls, partly because people don't feel the necessity to back them just because they share a party label. If you're the president of the United States, and you're a Republican, and I'm a Republican, I'm going to say I approve of what you're doing in office, and that's just the way Republicans behave.

MONTANARO: You know, one thing I'm really curious about - and Ron, you can speak to this maybe a little bit - but you were talking about how unpopular Watergate - you know, kind of pushing impeachment during Watergate was. It's always surprising to me that even 50 years later, whenever I hear that dang Lynyrd Skynyrd - Lynyrd Skynyrd. Oh, my God, how do I say this?

KHALID: (Laughter).

ELVING: Lynyrd Skynyrd.

MONTANARO: That Lynyrd Skynyrd song, "Sweet Home Alabama."


MONTANARO: There's the line in it where they say, Watergate does not bother me; does your conscience bother you?


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Now, Watergate does not bother me. Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth.

ELVING: The first time I heard it on my radio, I practically drove off the road.


ELVING: I mean, here we are talking about Muscle Shoals, and we're talking about Alabama and all this sort of thing. And then suddenly, they start talking about George Wallace, their governor.


ELVING: And then they say, Watergate does not bother me. And I'm thinking to myself, what are they talking about?


ELVING: Do they know who their audience is?

MONTANARO: I just wonder how it's going to seep into the culture now.

KHALID: So you've got to think, who would be the person to do the impeachment song for our time?

MONTANARO: Yeah, but for which side?

KHALID: OK, for Democrats.

ELVING: Lil Nas.

MONTANARO: For Democrats?


ELVING: Lil Nas.

MONTANARO: Oh, a little Lil Nas there?

ELVING: Lil Nas.

MONTANARO: You could do that.

ELVING: "Ukraine Road."


LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to ride till I can't no more.

WALSH: The soundtrack is already there (laughter).

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about impeachment 101.

MONTANARO: Sounds like a disaster.

WALSH: What sounds like a disaster - impeachment 101?

ELVING: What...

MONTANARO: All the song - the soundtrack.

ELVING: The soundtrack, and not to mention impeachment 101.


KHALID: And we're back. And let's start with a basic civic lesson. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced support for an impeachment inquiry. Ron, can you just define that for folks? What does it even mean to launch an impeachment inquiry?

ELVING: It just means that they're going to go forward with investigating various aspects of the president's behavior with a specific set of behaviors in mind - in this case, this Ukrainian business. And it's going to be done by a defined group of people, starting out here with the House Intelligence Committee for the time being. And it means that they are driving towards impeachment, but it is not formal impeachment proceedings.

KHALID: OK, but define that, too, though. What is impeachment? - because I don't know that folks have a clear sense of what it means if a president is impeached.

ELVING: I understand.

KHALID: Because they can be impeached and remain in office, as we've seen with Bill Clinton.

ELVING: That's correct. The House has the responsibility in the Constitution - and by the way, the Constitution is extraordinarily vague about all this. It's only a few sentences in various parts of the Constitution. And it says the House shall have the sole power to impeach, and the Senate shall have the sole power to try the impeachment charges from the House. And it says that the president or any other federal officer - and it's mostly been federal judges - can be impeached for bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Now, if you know what that means, you're possibly the first person to be absolutely certain. It's always been argued over what exactly that means.

KHALID: High crimes and misdemeanors.

ELVING: That's right. And as far as procedure, hey, you're on your own. Good luck. They did it one way in 1868. They did it another way in 1973 and '74, did it another way again in 1998. And I suspect this one will look a little different, too.

KHALID: Ron, you just mentioned three specific incidents in history. So we should be clear that this impeachment inquiry is the fourth time that a president is facing that.

ELVING: That's correct. That is basically correct. And we don't really know how far this is going to go. It might not actually lead to impeachment proceedings. We know there's going to be an inquiry, but proceedings would mean that you were actually drafting articles of impeachment and that those articles were going to be voted on in that committee and then sent to the floor of the House.

MONTANARO: Although, it does seem like they're heading in that direction. And, I mean, when you talk about the Clinton impeachment proceedings, it's this - and you were saying this seems like it could be heading that way. I mean, Deirdre, this seems like that timeline is fairly similar.

WALSH: Yeah, I think you're right. I think the other thing is once that you have the speaker of the House, who had been resisting publicly backing impeachment, now making a national address saying she was now publicly launching an official impeachment inquiry, it changes the politics. I mean, as Ron outlined, it is a political process not a legal process. So there's been a lot of talk this week about, what's an impeachable offense? And I think different people have different opinions about that. But there is now a pretty strong unity among House Democrats that the whistleblower complaint and the notes of the call between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine amount to what they believe are impeachable offenses.

MONTANARO: Well, the fact is, though, this is not a legal process, you know? This isn't spelled out somewhere in the Constitution for how it's supposed to go. You're not going to have a judge and a jury in the House. This is a political process determined by the majority. And, right now, that's Democrats in the House. They're going to determine what the steps are, how this is going to go, whether and how and who files articles of impeachment and what those are. That's all going to be about Democrats, and that's all a political process not a legal one. You're going to have to wait till you get to the Senate for something that seems like a trial.

ELVING: That's right. The Constitution says that the Senate shall set as a court as - in essence, and try and convict or acquit. So those are all much more courtroom-type terms. The Constitution actually specifies that the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court shall sit and preside over that trial.

KHALID: Oh, wow. I didn't realize that.

ELVING: So we had William Rehnquist do that for Clinton, and it would be John Roberts in this instance. And he would sit as the judge at the front of the room, but he would not render the final verdict. That would be done by the jury, in quotation marks, "consisting of the 100 senators."

WALSH: But I also think it's important to remember that the Senate is run by Republicans, and you need 67 votes to convict and remove a president in an impeachment trial. And maybe, while it's not political because of the jury, there's a hundred senators, and they're all politician.

MONTANARO: To boil this down, though - OK? - if you're sitting there thinking, is this worth it? Why would you go through with this? Well, that's the calculation that Nancy Pelosi has been making this entire time when she's tried to pump the brakes and show some caution here. We actually asked this question in our poll. Do you think it's worth it if he's, you know, impeached in the House and not convicted by the Senate? And guess what? People were split. They didn't think it was worth it. Overall, if you look at Independents, they didn't think it was worth it, overall, to go through with this if he wouldn't be ultimately removed from office.

KHALID: All right. Well, there will be a lot more questions, but we are going to leave it there for now. And it will be back in your feed on Monday. Until then, you can keep up with every breaking detail on this story by listening to your local public radio station, the NPR One app or npr.org. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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