Source: Google Trends

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

We live in strange times when “impeachment” becomes a bipartisan rallying call. But then little about Washington or indeed Westminster politics have been normal for a long time now.

How did we get here?

In September, Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would begin a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump.

During the days that followed, public interest in the term “impeachment” (red) in the United States sky-rocketed as the Google Trends chart above shows. At the same time, the White House launched its own strategy to win a political battle that has set the backdrop for the November 2020 election.

Attention turned to the source of the scandal. In seeking to pile attention on the whistleblower, the White House and Republican Party want to call into question the reliability, patriotism and veracity of the anonymous individual that is at the epicentre of the scandal which led to the impeachment inquiry.

Searches for the term “whistleblower” (blue) have tracked “impeachment”, suggesting the White House’s approach could be working.

Getting to the root of the problem

Attempting to dispel any notion of wrongdoing, the White House opted for a policy of transparency and released the transcript of the call between Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine.

The GOP is framing the impeachment inquiry as an unsubstantiated “witch hunt” against a President who cannot have done anything wrong seeing, since the transcript has been published for public consumption. “Read the transcript” has become the à la mode at Trump rallies, replacing previous favourites including “Lock her up” and “Build the wall”.

The Trump campaign is so bullish about using impeachment as a proactive front-foot strategy that they are using it as a fundraising tactic. For just $30, fans of the president can buy their own “Read the transcript” t-shirt, or “Stop the witch-hunt” for those who favour a more detailed design.

Will the impeachment proceedings hurt or help the president?

Trump has traditionally performed best when a bunker mentality takes over the White House. The Jose Mourinho of politics, he seems to thrive in an atmosphere when the world is set squarely against him and his acolytes.

The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the “sole power of impeachment”. The Democrats have a majority in the lower chamber, having picked up 41 seats in 2018. It is expected that the vast majority, if not absolutely all Democrats in the House, will support the impeachment proceedings. A majority of the House is needed to vote to impeach the President in order to send the process to the Senate. The Senate would then hold a trial to assess the House’s charges.

Adam Schiff, the House’s Intelligence Chairman, has announced that his committee will hold its first public impeachment hearings next week, taking evidence from Bill Taylor, a former US diplomat; George Kent, a State Department official and Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine. It will provide yet another lightening rod in the next phase of the Republican and respective Democratic campaigns for the 2020 general election.

Schiff is attempting to fast track the impeachment proceedings; keeping the issue at the front of the American public’s psyche appears to be good politics in an election year. To that end, the impeachment inquiry is best viewed as a tool for the election. Even if the House passes a vote to proceed with the impeachment process, it will stall in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds majority must vote to impeach a president. That requires 67 out of 100 Senators in an upper chamber where 53 are sitting Republicans. It has never happened before (although almost certainly would have done to Richard Nixon had he not not resigned first).

With a year to go until the general election, new polling from the New York Times puts the President within the margin of error amongst registered voters across the six closest states that went Republican in 2016. In North Carolina, Trump is head of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. With the spectre of impeachment looming large in the background and amidst the backdrop of low personal approval ratings – 43.3 per cent in the Real Clear Politics average – this gives real grounds for confidence within the Trump campaign.

A Morning Consult survey published this week showed support for impeachment has fallen 4 points since mid-October – 47 per cent now back impeachment compared to a high of 51 per cent. The political fight over impeachment is certainly not going away. Both sides will continue to make it a front-foot issue for their respective campaigns with less than 365 days to go.