How Nancy Pelosi could lose the impeachment vote
Well, here we are. Impeachment articles against President Trump have been introduced — one for abuse of power and one for obstruction of Congress — and a vote in the House is coming soon.
The way forward seems entirely predictable. The Democratic majority in the House will vote "yes" on impeachment and the Republican-controlled Senate will decline to convict. Likewise, polling shows the impeachment inquiry has overwhelmingly served to reinforce Americans' previously held opinions about the president. Fully 95 percent of those who came away more convinced of Trump's guilt already thought he was guilty, and an equal 95 percent of those freshly persuaded of his innocence already believed he hasn't done anything impeachable.
But here's an interesting thing: In survey data collected by Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight at the beginning of this month, 16.5 percent of Democrats said they believe Trump committed an impeachable offense but do not think he should be removed from office via impeachment. Instead, they say, his fate should be left to the voters to decide on Election Day 2020. Another 9.4 percent of Democratic respondents said Trump didn't commit an impeachable offense at all. If those numbers are reflected in Congress, the impeachment articles will fail.
That outcome is unlikely, I'll grant you — but it's not entirely implausible, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says she's not whipping votes. "On an issue like this, we don't count the votes. People will just make their voices known on it," she told reporters the night before the articles of impeachment were announced. "I haven't counted votes, nor will I."
I don't believe Pelosi has no sense of where each member of her caucus stands on this — or that Democratic representatives are unaware of the preferences of their party's leadership. Yet this statement paired with Pelosi's long reticence (reportedly on electorally strategic grounds) to move forward with impeachment suggests a real willingness to let House Democrats in vulnerable districts vote against the articles if they judge that's what's needed to stay in office and preserve the Democratic majority.
There are 31 House districts that are held by Democrats but which voted for Trump, in some cases by large margins. One of those Democrats — Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), a 15-termer whose district gave Trump a 31-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 — voted against beginning the impeachment inquiry. Peterson seems unlikely to vote for the articles of impeachment, and he may not be alone. For these representatives, it's a lot easier to defend supporting an inquiry ("I just wanted to settle the matter once and for all" or even "I wanted to give the president a fair chance to clear his name") than backing impeachment itself.
With a 235-seat majority (plus one independent, Justin Amash of Michigan, who has expressed support for impeachment) against 197 Republicans, House Democrats can only afford to lose 18 votes. If all 31 Trump-district Democrats vote "no," impeachment fails. If Democratic representatives share their national voter base's perspective from that Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight survey and vote accordingly, a whopping 63 would vote "no," so impeachment definitely fails.
I doubt either of those outcomes are realistic, they make defections in the high teens or low 20s seem possible. And I'm not sure Pelosi (to say nothing of Democrats' presidential candidates) would hate a narrow loss, whatever she says publicly. The Senate verdict remains all but a foregone conclusion — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he "can't imagine a scenario" in which his chamber would convict and remove Trump, and without an anonymous vote, he's probably correct.
Thus there's a sense in which Democrats' work here is done, a sense in which the impeachment vote, its final fate at trial basically predetermined by the Senate's partisan composition, is irrelevant. The inquiry is what mattered, and the inquiry has happened. The evidence of Trump's malfeasance has been aired. It had its opportunity to sway what few 2020 voters were available to be swayed. The trial, managed by GOP Senate leadership, will not be as politically useful for Democrats. So does it really make a difference if it proceeds? Does it really matter if the impeachment articles pass?
My guess is Pelosi's private answer to these questions is, "Yes, but keeping the House majority matters more." If winning a Senate-doomed impeachment vote means losing the House, I can't imagine that's a victory Pelosi seeks. She probably has the votes — but if she doesn't, that's a plausible scenario in which she wouldn't mind.
Editor's note: This article previously misstated the articles of impeachment leveled against President Trump. It has since been updated.