Robert Mueller and impeachment chatter is helping Democrats, not hurting them

New polls and analysis suggests the Mueller probe and renewed impeachment talk will boost Democrats this fall

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 23, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Robert Mueller; Donald Trump (Getty/Photo montage by Salon)
Robert Mueller; Donald Trump (Getty/Photo montage by Salon)

President Donald Trump, his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and a number of other prominent Republican supporters have suggested that special counsel Robert Mueller and the threat of impeachment will hurt Democratic chances in the 2018 midterm elections. But recent polls and studies don't support their theory.

We can start with Kyle Kondik, the guru on congressional elections at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball. In a report published on Thursday, Kondik shifted 10 congressional races in favor of Democrats and two in favor of Republicans. After noting that he doubted that the conviction of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and the guilty pleas by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen would alter the president's approval rating, he argued that these developments would still work to the overall disadvantage of Republicans.

The problem, Kondik noted, is that opinions about Trump have hardened "in a way that is poor for the president" and make it more difficult for Republican candidates to focus on the issues that would be most beneficial to their campaigns. He observes that despite the apparent chaos of the news cycle, most factors in the electoral environment have remained "largely stable throughout the cycle," and still tend to favor a Democratic victory:

Do Tuesday’s developments upset the enthusiasm advantage that Democrats appear to have and have demonstrated in most of the elections we’ve seen since the 2016 presidential election? We suppose it’s possible that the threat of impeachment could rally Trump’s core supporters, but a bigger problem for Trump and the Republicans than a motivation problem with their core supporters is a persuasion problem with soft Republicans in the suburbs who don’t like the president much and probably aren’t going to dislike him less after seeing key figures close to him on the wrong side of the law.

In other words, if one believes the Democrats are favored in the race for the House — and we do, although we don’t think the result is locked in concrete — then something in the political environment needs to change, in a positive way, for Republicans to regain the advantage. The Cohen/Manafort news was not that.

"I don't think that the Mueller investigation moves the numbers that much in terms of the president's approval rating and other factors," Kondik told Salon. "I do think that a big reason why the president's approval rating is as low as it is that people are skeptical of him and his behavior in office. So it may be that the Mueller investigation kind of reinforces what some people already feel about Trump and imposed sort of a cap on his approval rating."

Kondik added that it remains likely that the Mueller probe will not be a major factor in the fall campaign. "I don't think Democrats have really been running writ large on the Mueller investigation and that seems wise to me," he said. "It seems like the things that have moved the numbers for the president and Republicans have been more policy-related, be it the failure of their health care bill last year or other things.", the opinion-poll analysis site run by statistician Nate Silver, seems to reinforce the notion that the resurgence of impeachment talk isn't hurting the Democrats. The site's most recent House forecast gives Democrats a five-of-seven chance of retaking that chamber of Congress, even as Republicans talk about the impeachment issue far more than Democrats do.

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A recent Fox News poll also suggests that Republicans should be pessimistic about their 2018 prospects. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters approve of Mueller's investigation into possible collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, a jump of 11 points from respondents who said the same thing in a July survey. Only 37 percent of respondents said that they disapproved of Mueller's probe — and within that group, unsurprisingly, disapproval was disproportionately high among Republicans and other Trump supporters. Forty percent of respondents believed that the probe would find impeachable offenses against Trump, a jump of 5 percentage points from last month.

As Fox News itself reported, the findings are more favorable to Democrats than Republicans practically across the board, with a "generic" congressional ballot favoring Democrats by 11 points, 49 percent to 38 percent. "Given that Democrats’ vote is stacked in urban districts," Fox reported, "experts estimate they need to carry the generic ballot test by about 10 percentage points to take over the House." More of Hillary Clinton's 2016 voters are "extremely" interested in the 2018 midterms than Trump's voters, and far more (51 percent to 37 percent) report they are "enthusiastic" about casting their ballots this fall. Arguably that's not even the worst of it for the GOP:

Another takeaway: it comes down to women.  While the vote preference among men splits, women back the Democratic congressional candidate by 19 points.  In 2014, women backed the Democrat by 4 points, while men went for the Republican by 16.

Overall, when the ballot results are narrowed to “extremely” interested voters, Democrats hold a 56-38 percent advantage.  And when narrowed to counties where the 2016 presidential vote was close (Clinton and Trump within 10 points), Democrats are up by 45-39 percent.

A Fox News survey also found that Obamacare is far more popular among voters than Trump's signature tax cuts, with the former receiving the approval of 51 percent of respondents and the latter receiving approval from only 40 percent.

Even if Democrats do far better than expected in November, it will still be difficult or impossible for them to remove the president from office, at least not without significant Republican help. They would only need a House majority in to pass articles of impeachment, but two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, would be required to convict Trump on impeachment charges and end his presidency. If Democrats win every single Senate seat up for election this fall they'd still only hold 58 seats (counting the chamber's two independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont).

Even that scenario is pretty close to impossible, Kondik said. Democrats would be lucky to win "two or three" of the nine Republican-held Senate seats up for election this year, and have their own vulnerable incumbents running in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, all states easily won by Trump two years ago.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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