Will President Trump be impeached? It’s a question that consumes many observers – on both sides of the political divide and ocean – including, presumably, the President himself.
But, regardless of the facts unearthed by Robert Mueller’s investigation, it can’t happen. Not unless pro-impeachment Democrats control the House of Representatives.1 That’s why November’s House elections are so vitally important for President Trump’s future.
Democrats are currently the favourites to win those elections. But as the 2015 and 2017 UK general elections taught us, nationwide polls can be misleading. America, like Britain, elects its Representatives in single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes, in ‘first-past-the-post’ style wins. This means that small changes among certain strategically-placed groups of voters can have a very large effect on the outcome.
This Autumn, the most important group to watch will be those Republicans unhappy with Trump. The Democrats need to gain 23 seats to win a narrow, one-seat majority, and the road to that goal runs through the 25 Republican-held House seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Some of these seats are long-term Democratic seats held by virtue of the Republican incumbent’s tenure in office, but 12 of these had voted for Republican Mitt Romney just four years before. These ‘Romney-Clinton’ voters, therefore, could potentially swing House control to the Democrats if they vote Democratic in the fall.
These voters are the American analog to the ‘Tory Remainers’ whose votes swung longtime Conservative strongholds such as Canterbury and Kensington to Labour in last year’s UK election. They tend to be affluent, educated, and very open to immigration and globalisation.
Much as Tory Remainers abandoned their ancestral party as it became a vehicle for Brexit, Romney-Clinton voters are abandoning the GOP as it becomes a vehicle for immigration restriction and protectionism. The seats are in places similar to Canterbury and Kensington, the high-income suburbs of large cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington.
The Republican campaign for these voters rests on two grounds. First, many incumbents will try to distance themselves from President Trump, as Rep. Erik Paulsen strikingly does in this recent advertisement. Second, they will remind these economically conservative voters that the Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the recent GOP-sponsored tax cut. Republican strategists hope that these issues, added to strong personal loyalty to longtime incumbents, will convince enough Romney-Clinton voters to stay with their party even if they loathe Donald Trump.
Democrats, meanwhile, will try to distance their candidates from unpopular national leaders such as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. There are already 21 candidates in competitive races who have already said they will not vote for Pelosi for Speaker if elected. To draw a very loose comparison, this would be like a Labour candidate running in a Tory seat saying they would vote against Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. It’s impossible to know this far out whether the strategy will work, but one Democratic candidate using the technique won a special election this Spring in a seat that Donald Trump had carried by more than 20 points.
Republicans have their own equivalent to the disappointed Tory, though. Just as former Labour and UKIP voters backed Theresa May’s Tories in 2017 because of her Brexit stance, many Democrats voted for Donald Trump and Republicans in 2016 because of his heterodox views. These Obama-Trump voters provide crucial support for many Republican incumbents. There are 11 who represent seats that switched support from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, and many more saw narrow Republican margins expand on the backs of these voters. There are also five Democrat-held Obama-Trump seats, giving Republicans a chance to offset some losses if they can win some of these seats.
These voters, as one might expect, are largely economically downscale or middle-income Whites who never graduated from college or university. Just as their British counterparts tended to live in older, declining industrial cities such as Stoke-on-Trent or Sunderland, these voters are most concentrated in America’s Middle West and Northeast, areas that have been most affected by America’s de-industrialisation. They are also less likely to vote in midterm elections than more educated voters, and they also don’t like traditional Republican economics.
Republican incumbents wooing these voters can be expected to play up their support for Trump’s immigration policies while distancing themselves from GOP efforts to cut spending on health insurance or pensions. Democrats challenging them, on the other hand, will play up those efforts in an attempt to re-animate traditional voting patterns.
Partisan enthusiasm will also play a role in determining the outcome. Democrats, especially educated females, have been turning out at much higher than normal rates in elections held since 2016. This enthusiasm is one reason why Democrats won a Senate special election in the normally safe Republican state of Alabama last year. If this pattern continues, and if Republican enthusiasm does not rise to similar levels, many otherwise close races could be swung narrowly in the Democrats’ favour.
Democrats have also taken a page from Jeremy Corbyn’s playbook and are trying to mobilise young voters. Polls regularly show that Millennials strongly disapprove of Trump and his policies. The trouble is, young voters normally don’t vote at high rates in non-presidential years. But Democrats are hoping that hatred of Trump will motivate young adults to come to the polls just as Corbyn defied history and motivated young voters who skipped the Brexit referendum to vote Labour.
While some analysts and Democratic strategists are confidently predicting large gains, most analysts think the race for the House will be close. The Economist’s model, for example, currently estimates the Democrats will win 224 seats, giving them a very narrow 6 seat majority.
Forecasting elections months in advance is a mug’s game. But a narrow Democratic win in the House raises the prospect of impeachment proceedings that could occupy the remainder of Trump’s presidency. Whether the Senate then removes him from office or not, that alone will dial America’s political warfare all the way up to 11.