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Impeachment: The View From Swing States


We're going to begin with the ongoing impeachment investigation, which enters a new phase next week. The House Judiciary Committee has set a Friday deadline for President Trump to decide whether his attorneys will participate in the impeachment proceedings. And we can't possibly forget that all of this is playing out some 11 months before the 2020 election.

To find out how the impeachment inquiry is playing out in battleground states - the battleground states, actually - we've reached out to some people who have their ears to the ground in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Rochelle Riley is the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit and a former longtime columnist at The Detroit Free Press. She joins us from Detroit.

Rochelle, welcome.


GONYEA: Charles Franklin is a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and he's also Wisconsin's leading pollster, keeping tabs on voter attitudes for the Marquette Law School Poll.

Welcome, Charles.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: Thanks. Good to be here.

GONYEA: And Salena Zito is a Pennsylvania-based columnist for the Washington Examiner and The New York Post. She's known for doing most of her reporting by driving, not flying, taking those side roads to get to what people in the smaller towns are talking about. She joins us from Pittsburgh.

Salena, welcome.

SALENA ZITO: Thanks so much for having me.

GONYEA: So we're heading into what might be a consequential week for the impeachment inquiry, so I want to ask each of you, what are you hearing from voters in your state on the subject of impeachment? Salena, let's start with you.

ZITO: So in my interviews across the state, what I have found, having lived through two previous impeachments, is that people are not as tuned in in the same way that they were in the other impeachments. Now, I suspect it's because it's something that has been talked about by the national press since the day the president was inaugurated. In fact, people even talked about it when he was, you know, president-elect. So I think people are a little overwhelmed by the constant talk of impeachment or the constant talk about Russia, and they've tuned out a lot.

GONYEA: OK. Rochelle, what's the vibe you're picking up on in Michigan?

RILEY: Well, I think there's a reason that we are the states to watch. I think that people here have made it very clear that the impeachment hearings are a political campaign. I don't get a sense that they're connecting it right now with anything except the 2016 election and the 2020 election.

GONYEA: And, Charles, you're a pollster, but let's not dive into the numbers just yet. What stands out in what you're hearing from people that you're reaching out to?

FRANKLIN: We're finding a mix in how much attention people are paying. About a third of people are saying they're paying a lot of attention, but a third are saying little or no attention. So there's, you know, a gap in the sort of degree to which this is a riveting exercise. And the other thing I'd follow up on is that the kinds of issues that we saw motivating voters in 2018 like health care and preexisting conditions are things that are largely absent from the discussion right now as impeachment dominates. When those proceedings are over, presumably we'll come back to more the issues of the Democratic primary and shaping the fall election.

GONYEA: So Democrats hoped, even expected, that the public hearings and all of that detailed testimony would boost support for impeachment. But polls show that that really isn't happening. It's kind of a mixed bag. Charles Franklin, starting with you on this one, you certainly found some interesting things in a recent poll in Wisconsin that actually showed people moving toward the president as the impeachment hearings played out. How do you explain that?

FRANKLIN: Well, the movement is modest. It was from 44% favoring impeachment in October to 40% in November. But the biggest finding from October to November is that not surprisingly, Republicans rallied to the president, with over 90% - really, 94% of Republicans opposed. But Democrats did not similarly rally in favor. Eighty-one percent of Democrats were in favor of impeachment.

So that gap between 81 among Dems and 94 among Republicans is part of the story here. Democrats favor impeachment, but not as nearly universally as Republicans oppose it. And the modest number of independents are a bit more opposed to impeachment than in favor of it, though the gap there's not large.

GONYEA: Salena, you're not a pollster, and we don't want to get bogged down in numbers or anything. But are you feeling something similar to what Charles is talking about? Are you feeling something similar in Pennsylvania?

ZITO: Yeah, absolutely. The common thing I have noticed lately is the Republican suburban voters - the ones who really have had a problem with Trump's comportment and either sat it out in 2016 or voted with them - but in 2018, they decided they wanted to put the brakes on him. They're really struggling now with these new congressional members who ran on, you know, a different kind of politics - who ran on health care, who ran on, you know, getting things done. And they're frustrated with this vote that they made.

Not that they like Trump any more - they still don't like him. But they're frustrated that the vote that they did give to the Democrats has turned out to be sort of opening up the road towards impeachment, and they don't like that.

RILEY: I think that's an excellent point. We're seeing that same thing in our suburban counties like Macomb County just outside of Detroit. And three years later, the Democrats are in the same position as they were for the last election, except the role of Hillary Clinton is being played by Joe Biden. The role of Bernie Sanders is being played by Bernie Sanders. Voters who love Michelle Obama...

ZITO: (Laughter).

RILEY: ...Are really sick of Democrats going low when they want them to go high...

ZITO: Yeah.

RILEY: ...So that Trump and his reality show team are master marketers who have convinced his base that he is responsible for everything good in America, whether it's legacy victories such as low unemployment rates here to the myth that farmers and autoworkers are doing better. No one's really paying attention to issues because the issue right now is just Donald Trump, and that is not the way I think Democrats can win. Impeachment should not have been a campaign.

GONYEA: You know, from my own experience reporting in all of these places, talking to voters, I don't find the hearings changing anybody's mind.

RILEY: Yeah.

GONYEA: Anybody hearing anything different than that?

ZITO: No, I completely agree with you. Every day feels like "Groundhog Day" when it comes to politics. You woke up on November 9, 2016, and were optimistic about the president, you pretty much still are. And if you woke up hating the fact that he won, your hair's still on fire, and nothing is going to extinguish it until he leaves office. And we really haven't moved much from that day.

GONYEA: Charles, anything on that?

FRANKLIN: Yeah. I want to echo both Rochelle and Salena's point on this. Parties need to speak to the concerns of voters. There are lots of arguments about whether impeachment is justified and therefore required for the Democrats and the Congress to consider. But when we come back to elections, what matters is that Donald Trump spoke to issues that his voters resonated to, and Barack Obama spoke to issues that his voters resonated to. And right at the moment, impeachment is maybe a historically important thing, but it is not the issue that's driving voters' concerns.

GONYEA: As the investigation, continues the impeachment investigation, what do each of you think we should be paying attention to in your particular state to signal maybe where voters stand and - oh, I'll just ask it - where they might go?

RILEY: (Laughter) In Michigan, they're going all over the place. You still have Bernie Sanders supporters. You still have diehard Democrats who really do think that the 2018 elections portends something great for 2020. And then you have people who literally have just decided they don't care, and they're involved in this national movement for an independent party.

GONYEA: Charles.

FRANKLIN: In terms of vote, the parties are split. But it's the Democrats who are more united in opposition to Trump. There's a fair chunk - maybe 15 or 16% - of Republicans who have reservations about the president. I think the challenge for Democrats if they want to up their vote margin a little bit - and Trump won this state by 23,000 votes here - is to convince some of those voters with real reservations about the president that they, the Democrats, are offering a better alternative.

GONYEA: And Salena in Pennsylvania, give us something to look for as the months toward Election Day play out.

ZITO: Look for which nominee is picked and where they stand on fracking and "Medicare for All." Here's why. As a Democrat, you can't win Pennsylvania without Western Pennsylvania and Scranton. In both of these areas, economic opportunity has changed for the better because of the shale industry. If the candidate that is picked is going to be on the - ban fracking on day one, you're not going to win Pennsylvania because those two areas are not going to vote against their pocketbook.

But also on "Medicare for All," and here's why - there's a lot of people in the insurance industry in both of those areas. It's the No. 1 industry in Pittsburgh. And if "Medicare for All" becomes a thing, that creates a lot of instability for workers of all economic persuasions, whether they're working class or service and/or insurance professionals. You know, that instability in their job and what happens to it is going to impact their vote. They might not show up to vote for Trump, but they won't show up to vote at all.

GONYEA: That was Salena Zito. She joined us via Skype. She's a columnist at the Washington Examiner and The New York Post. We also heard from Rochelle Riley, the director of arts and culture for the city of Detroit and a former columnist at the Detroit Free Press, and Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the founder of

Thank you all for joining me.

ZITO: Thank you.

RILEY: Thank you.

FRANKLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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