Call it the Trump Impeachment Paradox.
On the front pages of nearly every American newspaper are declarations that Donald Trump is a bribe-taking, justice-obstructing felon merely waiting for Rep. Adam Schiff to slap on the cuffs. “Donald Trump’s impeachment defense hangs by a thread,” Bloomberg News reports. According to the right-leaning Media Research Center, coverage of President Trump by network news outlets since the impeachment inquiry began has been 96 percent negative.
That is not a typo: The Ukrainian story may or may not be another Watergate, but the president’s media coverage certainly is. And yet at the same time, a series of polls have been released showing the incumbent president’s approval either holding steady or on the rise.
What’s happening? Whatever it is, there is a divide between what Americans are being told is important versus what they’re telling pollsters is important to them.
A new Emerson College poll released Thursday — the same day Trump’s Ukraine defense was getting hammered by former Russia adviser Fiona Hill — found that “Trump’s approval has increased in the last month with 48 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval, a bounce from 43 percent approval in the last Emerson National poll in October.”
Among Republicans, Trump has 93 percent support in the GOP presidential primary versus Joe Walsh and Bill Weld.
The day before, a new poll from the key battleground state of Wisconsin reported, “for the first time, President Donald Trump has surged ahead of all four top Democratic rivals in potential head-to-head matchups.”
Wisconsin is widely viewed by political observers as the 2016 Trump state most likely to flip to a Democrat in 2020, which makes this Marquette University poll particularly relevant. It also appeared at the same time as a Morning Consult survey of the Wisconsin/Michigan/Pennsylvania battleground states that found Trump’s fortunes improving across all three.
Morning Consult focuses on two key voting blocs in these states: “Obama-Trump” voters (who voted for President Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016) and “Obama-nonvoters” (voted Obama in 2012 but stayed home in 2016).
Even as the impeachment story has dominated the press, Trump has maintained a 70 or higher percent approval rating among Obama-Trump voters in these three states. He also leads in head-to-head match-ups against Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders among those voters.
Obama-Trump voters in these states mostly resemble Republicans: They largely approve of the president’s job performance, and when it comes time to cast their votes for federal office, they tend to prioritize security issues such as border security, terrorism and foreign policy.
Yes, it’s true that Trump’s numbers among the Obama-nonvoters are a mirror image of this group — 70 percent disapproval — but there are twice as many Obama-Trump voters as Obama-nonvoters in these states.
Meanwhile, as Trump’s numbers stabilize, support for removing him from office is fading. In the new Emerson poll, support for impeachment has flipped in the past month, from 48 support/44 oppose, to just 43 support/45 oppose. “The biggest swing is among Independents, who oppose impeachment now 49 percent to 34 percent, which is a reversal from October where they supported impeachment 48 percent to 39 percent,” according to a statement from Emerson.
And in the Marquette poll, only 40 percent of Wisconsin registered voters believe Trump should be ousted, down from 44 percent. This matches the trend in the RealClearPolitics average, from 51 support/42 oppose a month ago to 48 support/45 oppose today.
None of this proves President Trump is a lock for reelection, or even the frontrunner. His RealClearPolitics average is still around 9 points underwater (44 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove). But in January, Trump was drowning at 15 points below (41 percent approve, 56 percent disapprove).
In the new Emerson College poll, Trump’s actually above water, if only by a single point. Still, it’s a rare occurrence.
And once again, it’s happening in an environment where the media coverage and partisan attacks are as harsh as any time in modern political history. How is Trump defying the hyper-negative political gravity?
“It’s the economy,” says Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson Polling. “The economy is the number one issue for Republicans (50 percent) and Independents (35 percent), and it continues to be the most important issue for one in three voters (34 percent) in deciding who they will vote for President.”
And Morning Consult’s poll shows that security and the economy (a.k.a. “borders and jobs”) are the top two issues for those Obama-to-Trump voters in the three Great Lakes battlegrounds.
It’s enough to make Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders nervous.
During the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, the Vermont socialist warned his fellow candidates, “we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election.”
Instead, Sanders insisted, “voters need to know that the Congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. In other words, we can deal with Trump’s corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country.”
So far, it looks like the bubblegum is winning.