The Senate’s acquittal of President Trump could flip the Senate to the Democrats. That is because swing voters could be more negatively influenced by the Republican’s Senate “trial” than the rushed job by Democrats’ House impeachment. Why is that?
Let’s start by comparing each party’s main critique of the other party’s performance. Republicans charge the House Democrats for not proving their case that Trump was guilty of abusing his power or obstructing Congress. The Democrats charge the Republicans in the Senate for not allowing critical new testimony and previously denied documents to be shown in the trial.
For voters, the simplified positions come down to this: the Democrats could have done a better job, like pursuing the courts to get testimony or documents, while the Republicans barred the Senate from receiving additional relevant information.
In my view, Republicans have the weaker message in addressing the issue of fairness because it boils down to “the Democrats needed to do a better job.” That is a charge that all of us have been blamed for at some point in our lives. It is not pointed. It is not a direct accusation of not being fair. The Democrats are accused of rushing the impeachment, but they are also accused of holding the impeachment too near the next presidential election. That’s a confusing attack.
On the other hand, the charge of not allowing witnesses who have spoken directly to the President, is simple to understand as a necessary condition for conducting a fair trial. The Republicans’ defense of why testimonies were not necessary is fractured. Some like Senator Lamar Alexander say no more information is needed. They admit that the President did try to get a foreign power to influence his election, but insist such behavior does not require his removal from office. That explanation undercuts the President’s position that he did nothing wrong.
Republican Senators will be heading into a quagmire of endless explanations of why they voted for no new witnesses as more of John Bolton’s book reveals the President’s involvement. Plus, the courts will likely force the Trump administration to release more damaging documents. As the Republicans’ justifications become more tortured and complex, the public will lose interest in the details and just remember what the Senate failed to do. A simple message always overshadows a complex one, particularly if a simple one is repeated and supported by a unified group.
As Chris Wallace of Fox News said, the Democrats “will be able to argue, … from now until November that this was a cover-up and that all the Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2020 were part of that cover-up.” Democrats just need to remind the public that trials involve “critical” witnesses and the Republican Senators denied their appearance. That decision might have saved the election for Trump, but it might also help the Democrats flip the Senate.
The Democrat House managers in the Senate Trump trial repeatedly stressed the need for Congress to check the growing power of a president. The Senate failed to do so, and in a cavalier manner because they assumed that Trump’s support is critical for winning their primary elections. But is Trump’s support a magic potion for winning their general elections? Not on recent evidence.
Admittedly Trump rallies are huge. As the Iowa caucuses were about to begin, Trump visited the state. As reported by “The Hill,” Trump attracted 7,000 people in Des Moines, twice the number that attended Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rally in Cedar Rapids, which his campaign claimed was the largest held by any Democrat during this political cycle in Iowa.
However, Trump’s ability to get his candidates elected is limited. In the 2019 Alabama Senate race, Trump supported Luther Strange in the Republican primary, who lost to Ray Moore, whom Trump then supported. Moore then lost to Democrat Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Alabama in 50 years.
A more telling measurement of Trump’s limited ability to help Republicans is to look at Trump’s endorsements of Republican Governor candidates in 2018 and 2019. Seven of his 13 endorsed candidates going for an open seat or challenging an incumbent lost in 2018. Last year he endorsed in only four governor races, and his candidate lost in three of them. In the 2018 US Senate races, Trump did well with incumbents, but horribly with challengers: only four of his 14 endorsed candidates won. (In 2019 there were no Senate races.)
The Brookings Institute also did a study of how candidates fared in 2018 for House and Senate races where Trump and Democratic politicians such as Joe Biden endorsed. Brookings tracked the PVI (partisan voter index) for the states or districts involved. Trump supported candidates in heavy Republican leaning districts that measured R+7.6, whereas Biden choose districts that were swing districts with roughly divided support between the parties. Trump’s endorsed candidates won 56% of the elections, Biden’s won 76%. This is a pattern that could be repeated in statewide races where urban higher-educated voters, who have been steady conservative voters, are upset with Trump’s imperial behavior.
The takeaway is that since 2018 Trump’s ability to sweep other Republicans into office does not match his power to attract people to his rallies. That’s because Trump is a unique phenomenon to watch, but not a force in persuading swing voters to vote for his candidates. It appears that congressional candidates will be judged more on how well they have served or will serve in public office than whether Trump endorses them.
There is another unintended consequence of acquitting Trump that plays to the Democrats’ advantage. It mutes Trump’s image as a victim, which has energized his base of supporters to come out and save him. Now that he is a victor, there will be some relief among his core support and hence they could be less motivated to mobilize folks to get out and vote.
Meanwhile Trump’s acquittal should stimulate Democrats to mobilize voters to do what the Senate refused to do. The public is on the same page as the Democrats. According to a January 28, 2020 poll by Quinnipiac University, 75% of voters favored allowing witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial, and 53% said President Trump was not telling truth about Ukraine. Although this is a national poll for all registered voters, it does show that Democrats have the potential to sweep up swing voters in key states to support senators who would act as a check on Trump from further expanding his executive powers. If the Democrats run solid candidates to beat incumbent Republican senators, they can also campaign on stopping a Republican Senate from appointing one or two more Trump adherents to the Supreme Court.
The Trump Senate trial has provided the Democrats a platform for carrying a simple message: the public needs a functioning Senate — one that is a real government watchdog, not a guard dog for their party leader.