Polls show support for impeachment but not removal, yet

WASHINGTON - The Ukraine/impeachment saga has been topping the news for weeks now, but a raft of new polls released this week offer the first real read on where the public stands on the complicated story. The common headline: Most people want an investigation and a formal inquiry, but Republicans are not on board – at least not yet.

Inside the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal, however, there are a few numbers that reveal how important the next few weeks of news could be in the impeachment story and suggest that the White House has a few areas of deep concern.

First, the overall findings in the latest survey. A majority of Americans, 55 percent, favor an impeachment inquiry for President Trump and 39 percent believe there isn’t enough evidence to impeach.

But that 55 percent can be broken into two groups on the question. There is a group of 24 percent who believe there is enough evidence to remove the president from office right now. And there is another 31 percent who believe the correct course of action is holding an inquiry “to determine if there is enough evidence to see if he should remain or be removed from office.”

So the largest part of that majority is really backing the start of a process. Remember, impeachment does not mean removal from office, it means starting the formal course of action (in the House) that can lead to a president being removed (by a vote in the Senate).

Looking at those numbers through a partisan frame shows some fault lines and, perhaps, unexpected areas of agreement.

For instance, the poll shows that a plurality of Democrats, 45 percent, and independent voters, 40 percent, believe Congress should hold the impeachment inquiry and see where it leads. The number for outright removal now is higher among Democrats, 42 percent, than it is among independents, 20 percent. Still, it’s worth noting that both groups favor starting the inquiry process over simple removal.

Republicans are the outlier here, as you might expect, with 76 percent saying that currently there is not enough evidence to even start a formal impeachment inquiry.

That’s a high number, of course, and probably a comfort to the White House. However, it should be noted that 76 percent is eight points lower than Trump’s job approval number among Republicans, 84 percent.

In other words, there are some small signs of discomfort with what the president did on the Ukraine story, even among his biggest boosters. And even small signs of discomfort could be troubling for a president who won the Electoral College by a narrow 78,000 margin in three states while losing the popular vote by about 2.8 million ballots.

There are other points of concern in the NBC/WSJ poll for Team Trump.

Among people who get their news from conservative news outlets – people who are more likely to hear coverage sympathetic to the president – 41 percent believe an impeachment inquiry is warranted. That’s more than twice the 20 percent of Republicans overall who believe that.

And when you dig deeper into the number for Republicans, their attitudes on impeachment are less cut-and-dried.

The NBC/WSJ survey asks Republican respondents whether they consider themselves to be more supporters of President Trump or more supporters of the Republican Party. Those two groups make up 48 percent and 39 percent of the GOP respectively – and they have very different feelings about impeachment.

Among “Trump Republicans,” there is an incredibly powerful desire to end the entire impeachment story now – 91 percent say “there is not enough evidence to hold an impeachment inquiry of Trump and he should finish his term as president.”

But among “party Republicans” the end impeachment now figure is 33 points lower, only 58 percent say the there is not enough evidence to hold an impeachment inquiry. And in that “party Republican” segment of the GOP, 26 percent say the inquiry should go forward and 13 percent say there is enough evidence to remove the president right now.

Those “party Republicans” may be the critical part of the GOP to watch going forward. A large portion of them is already open to impeaching the president. Further erosion among them could signal a fundamental challenge to Trump’s presidency.

With all these numbers, keep in mind that we are still likely quite early in the impeachment game. All these data points are, as pollsters always like to say, snapshots of a moment in time – in particular, they are the views from October 4th through 6th, when this survey was taken. That was several twists and turns ago in the story.

It’s not yet clear whether these numbers have captured public opinions and attitudes as they are in the process of moving, or whether the data are simply a new baseline on this issue that will stay locked in place.

To better understand that, the real test is what these figures look like a few weeks or a month from now.