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“Our job is to shape public opinion”: House Democrats aren’t obsessing over impeachment polls

Democrats are well into the public phase of their impeachment inquiry.

Speaker Pelosi Holds Weekly Press Conference
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference in the House Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. 
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Democrats began presenting their case for impeachment to the American people on Wednesday, with the first public hearing in a series that will continue on Friday and into next week. And for a small but growing number of them, what comes next is obvious: drafting the actual articles of impeachment.

For now, polling shows the public supports Democrats’ inquiry, but is a little less certain about whether the House should actually pull the trigger on impeaching President Donald Trump. And top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), have been careful to say that no final decision has yet been made to move toward articles of impeachment.

“We haven’t even made a decision to impeach, that’s what the inquiry is about,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “The committees will decide that, they will decide what the articles are.”

But talk to the rank-and-file, and it’s clear: At least some Democrats don’t necessarily feel like waiting around for the public’s stamp of approval. In conversations with Vox after Wednesday’s hearing, half a dozen lawmakers said the evidence they’ve seen gives them grave concerns about Trump’s conduct, and they hope the public feels the same after the hearings conclude.

“Our job is to shape public opinion, not just follow public opinion,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has sat in on depositions, told Vox. “It’s to do what we think is right, for our country, for our national security, and to persuade people of that.”

For at least one member who has sat in on depositions, impeaching Trump is a given — it’s the ensuing Senate trial for which the public opinion matters.

“Look — anyone of any objectivity would understand there are sufficient facts here to sustain high crimes and misdemeanors. There’s just no question about it,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), a member of the House Oversight Committee. “So I think impeachment will carry, based on my attendance of the depositions. However, the question is should the president be removed, and that’s really the question that’s going to be decided on by the Senate.”

Another member also emphasized that Democrats’ initial decision to launch the impeachment inquiry was counter to what public polling suggested at the time.

“When we finally decided based on Ukraine that we were going to cross the rubicon, at that point, polling still said ‘loser,’ ‘big risk,’” House Oversight member Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told Vox. “For once, you might want to give us a little credit, that we’re motivated to protect the Constitution.”

The role of public opinion in impeachment

Going into this week, about half of the American public supported the impeachment investigation, but fewer are sure about the House taking the step of impeaching Trump and sending him to a trial in the Senate.

A FiveThirtyEight polling average showed 51 percent of the American public supports the impeachment inquiry, while a slightly smaller percentage — 47 percent — supports impeachment and removal of the president from office.

And while this week and next week’s hearings are attempts to shape public opinion, new polling from Politico and Morning Consult suggests that many members of the public have already made up their minds.

The poll showed 62 percent of voters said there was no chance they would change their minds about impeachment, with 19 percent saying there was only a “small chance” they would change their minds. The percentages of those who said they were open to persuasion was much lower; 8 percent said there was “some chance” they’d change their minds, and just a sliver of 2 percent said there was a “strong” chance.

In some ways this makes sense; there’s already a ton of information floating around about what happened in the private, closed-door depositions over the past month. Bombshell pieces of testimony leaked shortly after the depositions were finished, and Schiff spent last week releasing the official transcript from each one. Certainly, there was at least one new bombshell dropped at yesterday’s hearing, when diplomat Bill Taylor relayed new information about a previously unknown phone call, allegedly between Trump and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland about Ukraine “investigations” the president wanted done. But generally, discovering new information isn’t the goal of the public hearings, members told Vox. It’s more painting a picture for those who haven’t had the same access.

“It’s sort of trickled out while these depositions were ongoing, so I’m not sure how the actual testimony — live on TV — is actually moving public opinion,” Lynch said. “I’m just not sure how many people are watching, and whether it was lively enough to catch the attention of the public.”

Ultimately, pursuing articles of impeachment will be a decision of members of the House, committee leaders, and House leadership.

“The Constitution doesn’t provide for a vote of the American public on this,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s committed to Congress. But the House and Senate are aware of their own constituents’ views and it matters.”

At Pelosi’s weekly press conference on Thursday, she said the committees of jurisdiction will ultimately be tasked with deciding to move toward articles of impeachment. The second-ranking Democrat in the House largely agreed that it should ultimately be the decision of individual members whether or not to vote for impeachment.

“This is not a question about polls, this a question about each member deciding about whether or not they believe conduct that clearly has been corroborated by many, many witnesses rises to high crimes and misdemeanors,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

The public phase of the impeachment inquiry has just begun

Wednesday’s hearings marked the start of the public phase of the impeachment inquiry — and the first of a series of panels featuring witnesses who could speak to Trump’s conduct with Ukraine.

As Vox’s Alex Ward has written, these hearings are central to laying out the facts of inquiry to the American people — and House members emphasized this as well. “Certainly this is the beginning of the public phase, so I think there’s plenty that Americans would want to know about abuse of power by the president, trying to get a foreign country to interfere in our elections,” says House Judiciary member Madeleine Dean (D-PA).

There are a slew of public hearings over the next week: Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies Friday, and White House Ukraine adviser Alexander Vindman will come before the committee on Tuesday, along with a number of other witnesses that day and the following two.

The hearings are also just one of several moves lawmakers are taking before the House Judiciary Committee considers drawing up potential articles of impeachment. The House committees are still holding closed-door depositions with individuals such as David Holmes, a staffer to acting Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor. Once the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees complete their interviews and document requests, they’ll put together a report that’s sent to the House Judiciary Committee.

“As we follow the facts, we are then prepared to receive the report that’s going to be given by the [investigatory] committees, and then the House Judiciary Committee will have the opportunity to call witnesses as well. We’ll follow the facts there,” said House Judiciary member Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).

Jackson Lee emphasized that the decision to advance possible articles would be based on the information lawmakers encounter throughout this process.

“I’ll listen to both sides and if I feel that conduct rises to the level of impeachment, I’ll act accordingly,” she told Vox. “There’s no public push.”

And if following the facts leads them to articles of impeachment, polling may not be a huge part of the decision.

“I don’t know anybody on the Democratic side who’s doing this because of polling,” Malinowski said. “A lot of members like myself from the most contested districts have obviously no incentive to do this, other than our belief that it’s the right thing.”

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