The issue with polling on impeachment

I didn't want to talk about this again so soon, but Bob Mueller made me do it


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An image of Robert Mueller blowing up the news cycle:

Today, the (now-former) special counsel announced that he would close up shop and denied to testify more about his investigation (much to the displeasure of Rep. Jerry Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee). The Office of the Special Counsel had done its job, Mueller said—which, in case you forgot over the past two years, was to conduct a nonpartisan investigation of (a) Russia’s interference into the 2016 election, and (b) efforts to obstruct that investigation (which, Mueller’s findings suggests, came from president Donald Trump himself). Importantly, according to Mueller, the Justice Department’s rules prevented him from convicting the president of wrongdoing. He reiterated a key line from the official report released in April:

If we had had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.

Since Mueller’s report was released, President Trump’s critics have demanded that Congress conduct effective oversight of the executive branch. House Democrats call this their “constitutional duty”. Of course, that too hasn’t come without opposition. But… so what?

There’s a tough matter to be talked about with regard to impeachment polling. Unlike other issues where the public’s opinions matter, I don’t think those on impeachment really do. Besides the supposition that Congress can exonerate the president only after proper investigation and accountability, I’ll note two data-driven points.

First, it doesn’t seem to me to be the case that a polarized public has the ability to properly assess the facts of the case (just the facts, ma’am), like some—note: not all (or even most?)—in Congress can do. Here’s some polling:

It strikes me as a bonkers that anyone would make the case that a public this committed to their party line would be able to rationally evaluate the pros and cons of impeachment. Though opinion polling does tell us something about the public’s stance on other polarized issues, my view on impeachment differs; partisanship changes from essentially being loyalty to a heuristic (as in the case of, say, policy on renewable energy or abortion) to loyalty to an individual. Of course, I won’t pretend like that loyalty is symmetrical; one side of the debate is apparently (though not decisively) much more acquainted with motivated reasoning than the other.

Second, we ought to consider an example from the past. Richard Nixon’s approval ratings demonstrate some revealing insight into the dynamic between popularity and presidential wrongdoing. Nixon was popular with his party (and the public) until the investigation into Watergate began in earnest, as the chart below from Marquette University Law School professor Charles Franklin shows:

If the standard for congressional oversight and impeachment proceedings is to do whatever the public says, Richard Nixon likely would not have resigned. It’s simply a bad standard. The lesson here is even more essential when we account for the increase in partisan polarization since 1974. Aggregate opinions have become less elastic and are constrained by a higher lower bound and lower upper bound to support for/opposition against impeachment (see point one).

Further, if the public was the deciding factor on ethical matters, what would Congress do with a demagogue who had run amok, yet held enough sway with the masses to adequately suppress support for ramped-up investigation? If you think that’s a far-fetched proposition, I might suggest you re-read the second volume of Mueller’s report and then consult the president’s current approval rating. While you’re at it, you might also run your eyes over Mueller’s writing about Congress’s explicitly independent investigative powers


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