Friday, November 1, 2019

'Urban' impeachment bodes ill for Democrats in 2020

In playing to their base, Democrats are putting the 2020 election right into Republican hands.

This line of reasoning is based on the precedent of the partisan 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, the public reaction to that impeachment in the 1998 midterms and three decades of demographic change since the 1988 election.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives.  The charges in the Articles of Impeachment as forwarded to the Senate were lying under oath (perjury) and obstruction of justice in relation to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton by Paula Jones.

The American public opposed the impeachment, with polls showing that Americans (1) generally agreed that the President had committed the crimes alleged in the Articles but that (2) they did not warrant removal from office. In perhaps the most revealing study of the events of 1998, Alan Abramowitz wrote that the election results were almost certainly the result of "scandal backlash," and that the only other credible reasons for the unusual election results could be ruled out. The 1998 election was the first time since 1822 that the sitting President saw his party gain seats in the House of Representatives. The election caused then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to resign. It also saw two staunch impeachment proponents lose Senate seats: Al D'Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina. Republicans have not won a Senate seat from New York since that contest.

It is worth noting that Abramowitz's "time for change model" has correctly predicted the outcome of every Presidential election since 1988, the same beginning point for the other reason why Democrats are pushing a partisan impeachment at their own grave peril.

Immediately following the 2016 election, two data geeks from RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende and David Byler, published a fascinating scholarly analysis of the demographics. "How Trump Won" examines a shift in the geographic distribution of voters from small rural communities across the spectrum to large mega-metropolitan areas. They begin with the 1988 election and take it through 2016 to describe why the election was part of an ongoing trend.

Trende and Byler (similar to Abramowitz) observe that "elections are determined by fundamental factors like the economy, scandals and incumbency."

Their study introduces another factor to help understand how elections have worked. They split voters and results into six distinct geographic groups: rural, small town, large town, small city, big city and mega city.

Here's a tell-it-all chart from the conclusions section of the report (you may need landscape mode on mobile devices for this image):

It shows the Democratic candidate's share of the two party vote for each of the six groups from 1988 through 2016. Note the dramatic shift in votes for the Democrat over time. In 1988, the share of the vote was fairly evenly distributed across the geographic categories. By 2016, Democrats received a significantly smaller share in the three rural to large town categories; about the same share in small cities; and significantly higher shares in large and mega-cities. The authors write:
In other words, the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant is very inefficiently distributed. We therefore opted to utilize a demographic (urbanicity) that is easily filtered through a geographic component (CBSAs) and that people intuitively think of in geographic terms. What we discovered is a different dimension to the Democrats’ demographic inefficiency problem: They are becoming far too clustered in urban centers to be effective, even when they win the popular vote. ...

Winning mega-cities by 30 points is great, but [Hillary Clinton's] margin there was mostly (though not entirely) neutralized by her poor performance in large rural areas and small towns alone. Again, her vote in these mega-cities was also inefficiently distributed in already-blue states; the swing states with mega-cities tend to have large amounts of rural land, which is why she lost Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Finally, we note that while rural and small-town America are disappearing, that disappearance is happening much more gradually than people appreciate.
Let's put this in the context of the central argument of this post, which is that Democrats are imperiling their 2020 chances by playing to their urban base in the current impeachment. Ed Morrissey blogged about recent polls on the Ukraine impeachment inquiry and has some good observations on the pulse of public opinion:
This does not portend success for Democrats once Republicans get on an even playing field, and especially if Democrats send impeachment to the Republican-controlled Senate. At some point, Republicans will get to expose all of the materials to full public scrutiny and start issuing their own subpoenas, including for the whistleblower and any of the attorneys on Schiff’s committee to detail their involvement in the origins of this scandal. And while that may not cause support for impeachment to collapse, it’s certainly not going to push it any higher.

A month ago, it looked like Democrats had some momentum for impeachment. Now it appears stalled out, circling in a partisan stasis and showing no real movement into the kind of consensus needed for removal. Even more, it looks like a project produced by and for mainly the Democrats’ urban core, an aspect that becomes very clear when looking at impeachment support in the crosstabs:

Urban voters: 58/38
Suburban voters: 46/51
Rural voters: 38/58
The emphasis is mine.

Abramowitz suggests that unsuccessful impeachment risks a "scandal backlash" effect and we can point to the 1998 election as evidence that the phenomenon is a real possibility. Trende and Byler show that the inefficient distribution of the Democrat coalition puts their candidate at a disadvantage without a scandal backlash working against them. Finally, Morrissey's summary of polling shows that the impeachment push by Democrats is unpopular among the geographic regions they should least want to anger.

Pelosi caricature by DonkeyHotie.


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