Why Open Hearings Likely Won't Shift Public Opinion On Impeachment

Televised impeachment hearings have shifted public opinion in the past, but that may not be the case this time around.
Posted at 5:52 PM, Nov 12, 2019

Televised hearings have had a big impact on the public's view toward impeachment in the past, but experts say that may not be the case this time around.

"Most people are not going to be watching this wall-to-wall. They'll probably get it in their feeds, they'll probably get, you know, snip bits here and there, and so you have to imagine that there's going to be less of a media effect on this," said Michael D. Cohen, chief strategy officer at WPA Intelligence, a Republican polling firm. 

In 1973, the Nixon Watergate hearings were broadcast on ABC, CBS and NBC, and millions of Americans tuned in nightly to PBS for prime-time coverage. 

A Gallup poll at the time found 71% of Americans said they watched the hearings live, and 21% said they watched 10 hours or more of the proceedings. 

Nixon's public support took a big hit. At the beginning of Nixon's second term, his approval rating reached 67% but after the Senate Watergate hearings began in May, his approval rating dipped below 43% and never recovered. 

But the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton were different. For starters, they happened during a lame-duck session after the 1998 midterm elections. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had already released his report on Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and Americans had largely made up their minds about how they felt. 

Clinton's approval ratings remained very high throughout the impeachment proceedings, peaking at 71% in February and never dipping below 56%. However, the impeachment process was very unpopular. 

A Pew Research Center Survey from the time found only 3 in 10 Americans supported impeachment. A Pew survey conducted just after the House voted to impeach Clinton found only 34% of Americans paid very close attention to the public proceedings. 

Now, some polling experts say public opinion around President Trump's impeachment hearings will likely more closely resemble Clinton's than Nixon's. 

That's due to a combination of increased political polarization and changes in the way Americans consume news. 

"I don't know what's going to move here," Cohen said. I think that in this media environment, with this political polarization, with the Republican Party rallying around their leader, with the Democrats rallying around impeachment, I don't see what's going to move until I see it. And at this point, I don't see a situation where someone else saying the thing we already know moves people."