To judge by the most visible congressional Republicans, the party is united in abject contempt for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. In truth, a sizable portion of the Republican Party’s voters have adopted a more nuanced posture.
“Republican voters,” FiveThirtyEight’s headline advertised, “increasingly back the GOP’s move to block impeachment witnesses.” And the text that followed delivered on the promise. The Ipsos survey that FiveThirtyEight sponsored found that support among Republicans for calling new witnesses to testify in the Senate’s trial of the president declined by seven points from December. But it was a decline from 48 percent to 41 percent. Given the information climate in which Republican voters are steeped—an environment characterized by indignant punditry and dismissive politicians heaping scorn upon these proceedings and discarding evidence that the president behaved recklessly—it’s remarkable that about two in every five Republicans do not share the views of their party’s elites.
FiveThirtyEight is not alone in its findings. A Yahoo News/YouGov survey released this week found that among the whopping 85 percent of all respondents who want to see the Senate seek new relevant witness testimony are 43 percent of Republicans. There is no ambiguity in these polls about how Republicans feel about Trump; they do not believe that the charges against him merit his removal from office. But that conclusion has not yet led a significant minority of the party’s base voters to conclude that the Senate is obliged to make a mockery of this process.
This consistency is apparent in another area in which a substantial minority of the Republican Party appears reluctant to join with their leaders. This week, Indiana Sen. Mike Braun was asked by a reporter whether it was, in his view, “okay for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and withhold foreign aid to coerce him into doing so?” “No,” Braun replied, “I’m not saying that’s okay. I’m not saying that’s appropriate. I’m saying that it didn’t happen.” We can assume the senator was proud of this exchange as his official Twitter account promoted these remarks.
This dubious claim surely resonates with the president. Donald Trump still maintains that the call in which he dangled military aid before the Ukrainian president in exchange for a “favor” in the form of investigations into a crackpot conspiracy theory and his chief domestic political rival was “perfect,” eliding the efforts made by much of his administration to make the implied threat tangible. For Braun and his Republican colleagues, Trump is the only audience that matters. But that risks taking for granted the universe of Republican voters, a significant portion of which seems disinclined to subordinate reason to a political imperative.
A Pew Research Center poll released on Wednesday, which found that a majority of respondents now believe Trump should be ejected from office, also showed 63 percent of American adults believe the president “probably” or “definitely” did something wrong. The question is broadly phrased to incorporate Trump’s entire career in professional politics but, given the survey’s focus on the charges that led to his impeachment, it’s not unreasonable to presume that respondents were focused on the events involving Ukraine. That poll found that 32 percent of Republicans join with the majority in declining to extend to Trump the benefit of the doubt.
More worrying for Republicans, that bloc of Trump skeptics has been stable for months. A December NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a nearly identical number of Republicans, 35 percent, believe the president behaved improperly in his relations with his Ukrainian counterpart, even if that behavior might not be impeachable. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in November showed that 32 percent of self-described Republicans believe the president acted inappropriately by dispatching Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine in his capacity as the president’s personal attorney to ferret out “corruption.”
These are minorities within the Republican coalition, but no competent political enterprise could callously dismiss a full third of its constituents and maintain an instinct for self-preservation. Republicans do not want to see Trump removed from office, and they probably do not want to see him indelibly tarred by an impeachment process managed by his own allies. But many Republicans are also not especially enamored with the Republican Party’s apparent willingness to acquit the president “on the merits” without acquainting themselves with those merits. Even if the outcome of the Senate trial is preordained, a significant number of Republicans want the GOP to take the impeachment process seriously.