The Media Today

Impeachment polls and the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy

December 3, 2019

The impeachment story is moving on. Today, the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee will publish its report on President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and turn things over to the Judiciary Committee, which will hold its first public hearing on impeachment tomorrow. Key facets of the report aren’t known yet, but it’s sure to conclude that Trump improperly leveraged the presidency for personal political gain. “Prebutting” that finding, House Republicans moved to muddy the narrative by issuing a report of their own yesterday; it says Trump did nothing wrong, and instead acted out of genuine concern about corruption. As Chris Cuomo noted on CNN last night, “The two reports literally bear no resemblance to each other. One set of facts, two realities—that’s a lot of trouble for the rest of us.”

Barring a Mick Mulvaney- or John Bolton-shaped Christmas miracle, the “explosive witness” phase of impeachment is over; tomorrow, House Judiciary will hear instead from scholars who can speak to the constitutional grounds for impeachment. The words “made for TV”—overworked in much Trump-era coverage—will likely have the week off. Speaking with Politico last week, David Cicilline, a Democrat on House Judiciary, said he hoped people would tune in for tomorrow’s hearing, but acknowledged that “it probably doesn’t have the same kind of appeal of the fact witnesses.” When it comes to impeachment, Cicilline said, “I think people have made up their minds on this in a lot of ways.”

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In recent days, the latter point has echoed through a good deal of impeachment coverage, especially on TV. Polls released before Thanksgiving showed, broadly, that the preceding weeks of televised testimony failed to increase public support for removing Trump from office via impeachment. Talking heads chewed on the findings through the weekend. “The impeachment numbers are just like every other number in our politics: completely divided right down the middle,” David Brooks, a Times columnist, said on PBS NewsHour Friday. “Eventually it’ll end, and then we will turn our attention to the Democratic Party, and I’m not sure what will have been achieved.” On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace put a similar point to Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic Congressman from New York: “You just finished 30 hours of televised hearings, 12 witnesses, and the public apparently isn’t buying it at this point.” Over on NBC, Meet the Press kept coming back to public opinion. During its political panel, Al Cardenas, a Republican strategist, told Chuck Todd that the Democrats have a timing problem. “Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I know I, for a fact, don’t want to get angry at people,” he said. “For Democrats to move the impeachment needle, they’ve got to get people angrier than they are today.”

Impeachment polls matter; as I’ve noted many times (and will surely have to note again), impeachment is more a political process than a judicial one. Poll movement over time matters, too. Nonetheless, the widespread notion that support for impeachment is stagnant is a selective interpretation. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted last week, “No change in views on impeachment after public hearings” could also be framed as “Support for impeachment still at all-time record high, higher than for any other US president in history.” Below the topline findings, the picture is richer still. Approval for the impeachment inquiry (as opposed to impeachment and/or removal from office) continues to outstrip disapproval; per Quinnipiac, a clear majority of Americans think the administration should cooperate with Democrats. (To date, it has not.) The same poll shows that a small—though by no means insignificant—slice of Americans have yet to make up their minds either way. FiveThirtyEight also reckons that plenty of Americans are still persuadable; interestingly, its finding holds reasonably steady on either side of the partisan divide.

It’s not the news media’s job to persuade people to back impeachment, but leaning too heavily on polls risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we repeatedly tell people they’re unconvinced, aren’t they more likely to be unconvinced? Our job is to give people the facts they need to make up their minds. Many journalists are doing that. But there’s plenty of chatter about optics, talking points, and, yes, polls, too. FiveThirtyEight qualified its finding about persuadability with another finding: that persuadable people aren’t paying as much attention to impeachment. If anything, that makes the facts even more urgent—we need to keep our focus on them as sharp as possible, in the hope of catching the attention such people do offer.

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Last night, Cuomo did a good job of that on his show. In an interview with Randy Weber, a Republican Congressman, Cuomo swiftly and clearly demolished various false GOP lines about the Ukraine scandal, including the conspiracy theory that Ukrainians had something to do with the hack of the Democratic Party in 2016. “Good to hear your opinion again,” Weber said, as Cuomo bade him good night. “It wasn’t an opinion—it’s a set of questions off what we understand is fact,” Cuomo replied. “It’s not an opinion. It’s not an opinion. Okay?”

Below, more on impeachment:

  • Fake polls!: It should be noted that the “stagnant polls” narrative is itself a Republican talking point: throughout last week, Trump boosters and the president himself cited it to make the case that impeachment has been a bust. Not that Trump needs real numbers to make a case: as Vox reports, his claim that some polls show support for impeachment “dropping like a rock, down into the 20’s” seems to have been made up.
  • MAGA v. MAGA: On Sunday, Steve Hilton, a Trump-friendly pundit on Fox News, conceded that there’s “a swamp going on with the commercial interest of Rudy Giuliani… He’s trying to make money off his relationship with President Trump.” Yesterday, Giuliani suggested on Twitter that he might sue Hilton for libel.
  • Yet another report: Next week, we’re set to see a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, assessing the circumstances of the FBI’s investigation into Trumpworld’s ties to Russia in 2016. Per the Times, William Barr, the attorney general, is unhappy with the IG’s conclusion that the FBI did have sufficient information to open its probe. “Barr’s skepticism could place more pressure on John H. Durham—the federal prosecutor who is conducting a separate criminal inquiry into the roots of the Russia investigation—to find evidence backing Barr’s position,” the Times reports.
  • Page turner: For the Daily Beast, Molly Jong-Fast scored a first interview with Lisa Page, the former FBI lawyer whose Trump-critical texts with Peter Strzok—with whom Page was having an affair—made her a rich target for right-wing conspiracy theories and the president’s wrath. The interview drove much discussion yesterday, including on Fox. On CNN, Jong-Fast reflected on persuading Page to break her silence: “I wrote to her and I said… ‘I really think that I could show the human side of what it’s like to be targeted by the President of the United States.’”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.