WASHINGTON — The decision by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment inquiry of U.S. President Donald Trump has complicated what already was Trump’s uncertain road to re-election next year.
For some time now, public opinion polls have suggested Trump is in a somewhat weaker position for re-election than most incumbent presidents, with his approval rating stuck in the low 40% range.
Trump is counting on a strong economy and loyal supporters to overcome what is expected to be a ferocious Democratic turnout next year intent on denying him a second term in office. But recent warning signs on the economy have also created some uncertainty about the president’s re-election prospects.
Now the president faces a new challenge: an impeachment inquiry led by House Democrats. The focus is Trump’s efforts, in a phone call, to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate the son of his political rival Joe Biden.
Democrats seized on the release of a summary of a transcript of the call released by the White House on Wednesday that detailed Trump’s efforts to enlist the help of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to probe Hunter Biden’s involvement with a Ukrainian gas company.
A joint statement issued by four House committee chairmen investigating the matter, all Democrats, described the summary as an “unambiguous, damning and shocking abuse of the Office of the Presidency for personal political gain.”
In a statement issued through his campaign Wednesday, Joe Biden said, “It is a tragedy for this country that our president put personal politics above his sacred oath.” Biden added that Congress “must pursue the facts and quickly take prompt action to hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Trump has denied he did anything wrong and says a Democratic impeachment probe will actually help him win re-election next year.
“The good news is the voters get it. This is why they say it is good for the election. But you know what, it is bad for the country,” Trump told reporters while attending events at the United Nations Tuesday.
Trump supporters argue that going after the president in Congress will motivate his voters to come out in force next year. But Democratic strategists contend that a battle over impeachment is also likely to further motivate Democrats, many of whom are primed to vote against the president in 2020.
Analyst predict that the highly partisan nature of an impeachment inquiry will further cement the polarized political divide in the country.
“I really think this 2020 election is kind of a 50-50 sort of proposition at this point in which there are lots of conflicting factors, either arguing for or against Trump,” said University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik. “And of course this is with the ultimate state of the economy unknown, the state of war and peace unknown, and the identity of the Democratic nominee also unknown.”
Public opinion polls suggest Democrats have some work to do to build public support for impeachment. A new Quinnipiac University Poll found only 37% support impeaching the president, while 57% oppose the idea.
A recent Morning Consult/POLITICO survey found 36% support impeachment while 49% oppose it. Both polls were conducted before Speaker Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry.
Even if the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is able to impeach Trump, most analysts believe the Republican-held Senate would prevent his removal from office.
Trump expects the economy to stay strong next year and is also counting on a huge turnout from his energetic base of supporters to lead him to victory in 2020. But USA Today political analyst Susan Page warned that the president is walking a narrow political path.
“President Trump’s great strength is that he has a core of supporters who are going to be with him no matter what. His biggest problem is that that core is not a majority of the American electorate. It is about 40%.”
But as long as the U.S. economy remains relatively strong, Trump should benefit, according to Republican strategist John Feehery.
“I happen to think that Trump is a different kind of president, but he still has the structural advantages, and I think he is going to win again because I think the economy is going to be pretty strong.”
Experts are also quick to point out that trying to predict what may happen with the impeachment inquiry and with the economy next year is risky.
“Things are not looking well for the president, and if the election were held today there would definitely be challenges,” Emory University analyst Andra Gillespie told VOA. “But we still don’t know what conditions are going to be like in nine months.”
Place in history
Trump has become the fourth president to be the subject of an impeachment inquiry, following Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
Johnson and Clinton were both impeached by the House of Representatives but survived a Senate trial and remained in office.
Nixon resigned when it became clear Congress was moving to impeach him and Senate Republicans abandoned him, making it likely he would be removed from office.
Trump would also like to avoid the fate of two other former presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. They are the only two presidents since World War II who have been defeated in a bid for a second term in office.