With an impeachment inquiry and a series of tough news cycles dogging his administration, President Donald Trump has two very significant things going for him – a Republican-controlled Senate, which with few exceptions has steadfastly stood with the president, and the support of influential conservative media outlets like the Fox News Network.
As the Senate braces for the possibility of an impeachment trial, the path to a scenario in which 20 GOP senators vote with Democrats to convict the president is narrow, but each of them will have to consider a number of factors before they cast their votes.
The Impeachment Process
In order for the Senate to hold an impeachment trial, the House of Representatives will first have to complete their impeachment inquiry and a simple majority will have to vote to impeach. With 228 members in favor of impeachment and only 218 votes needed to impeach, that’s likely to be exactly what happens.
“I think there’s no doubt the House will impeach,” Northwestern University Professor Emeritus David Zarefsky told The Globe Post. “Not on a strictly partisan vote, but on an almost strictly partisan. There’ll be a few Republican defections. So the focus is on the Senate.”
Once an impeachment trial begins in the Senate, two thirds or a minimum of 67 senators will need to vote to convict the president in order to remove him from office. That’s never happened before in American history and would mean every Democrat and Independent plus at least 20 Republicans voting to convict.
With Republicans so far holding the line and defending Trump, a conviction in the Senate is especially unlikely, but there are a few signs to look for that might indicate the president is in trouble. The first is how Republicans go about defending the president.
The Politics of an Impeachment Trial
“So they’re holding tight largely as a political judgment that it’s in their best interest,” Zarefsky said. “So I would pay attention to how they go about defending themselves, whether it’s a full-throated embrace of Trump or whether that begins to weaken.”
The most likely Republicans to break ranks will be those up for election in 2020 especially those who come from more competitive states like Cory Gardner of Colorado or Susan Collins of Maine. Polling on the president’s approval rating and support for impeachment will play a role in how Senators decide to vote.
“They’ll also pay close attention to the polls,” Zarefsky said. “If support for removal grows, particularly in their home states, I think that could make a difference. The Senate Republicans that are considered vulnerable in the 2020 election, especially bear watching and if there are a couple or three leading Republicans who begin to break ranks, then that’s a sign that it could legitimize other Republicans doing so.”
President Trump’s approval ratings have held steady at roughly 40 percent and while support for impeachment has ticked up in recent weeks, it’s still only around 50% according to polling averages from FiveThirtyEight. In order for a conviction to happen in the Senate, that would have to change substantially according to Juniata College Politics Professor Dennis Plane.
“What we have to start seeing for [conviction] to become more of a realistic possibility is for public opinion to start shifting more to 60/40 or 65/35,” Plane told The Globe Post. “Once more people turn. If the people turn, then leaders will start to crack as well.”
— The Hill (@thehill) October 18, 2019
The closest thing to a successful impeachment in the U.S. is the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate scandal, but much has changed in the more than 40 years since, creating a much different political dynamic today.
“The biggest difference is that we are more polarized and more partisan when we were with the Nixon impeachment, so the gut instinct of senators and members of the House from both parties is to rally around their political party leaders,” Plane said.
According to Zarefsky, another difference between this impeachment and Nixon’s is the pace at which evidence has become public.
“In the Nixon case, the incriminating evidence came out over a long period of time,” Zarefsky said. “Arguably in today’s situation, the smoking gun came out right at the start in the reconstructed transcript and then in the text of the whistleblower complaint. That’s one big difference that suggests that the pace…may go faster this time.”
President Trump also has one other thing that Nixon didn’t, and that’s much different media landscape which includes a far greater diversity in the different types and the sheer number of news organizations, including powerful conservative media exemplified by Fox News Network, which wield influence over public opinion.
“During Nixon’s impeachment, you had a few big newspapers and the network evening news and that was pretty much the ball game,” Media Consultant and Boston University Associate Professor Tobe Berkowitz told The Globe Post. “Now you’ve got the networks 24/7, social media, and powerful talk radio, so the variety of outlets has dramatically increased.”
Tobe said if Fox News’s opinion hosts like Sean Hannity or talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh begin to soften their defense of the president, it could spell trouble for him in terms of media support. Tobe, Zarefsky, and Plane all agreed, however, public opinion on impeachment and political prospects in Senators’ home states will be the main factor in whether they vote to convict the president.