Why Aren’t 2020 Democrats Talking About Impeachment? Because Voters Aren’t Asking

BOW, N.H. — As Senator Elizabeth Warren neared the conclusion of her remarks on Saturday to a few hundred activists at a house party in this small town just south of the state capital, she made a solemn vow to “protect our democracy.”

It was Ms. Warren’s first trip to New Hampshire since Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, testified before Congress last week about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and she told the crowd that she would “start with dreaming big.” But what she had in mind was “a constitutional amendment to protect the right of every American citizen to vote and get that vote counted” — not impeaching President Trump.

That topic didn’t come up.

Support among Democratic voters for opening an impeachment inquiry is growing, and at least 100 members of Congress are now in favor. But even in the aftermath of Mr. Mueller’s nationally televised testimony, voters bring up impeachment far less than they do policy issues, and few of the 2020 hopefuls make it central, or mention it at all, in their appeals.

Interviews with Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and at the N.A.A.C.P. and Urban League conferences this week, yielded an unwavering belief that Mr. Trump is a lawless demagogue who must be turned out of office — but also a sense that efforts to impeach him will inevitably run aground in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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“I think they should do an inquiry,” said Mary Ann Lakevicius, a Concord, N.H., resident who came to see Ms. Warren on Saturday. “But I think Nancy Pelosi is right: If they can’t get it through the Senate, what’s the point?”

Some in the party reject this sort of fatalist shrug, and believe pursuing impeachment will further erode Mr. Trump’s already-weakened political standing by reminding voters of the scandals engulfing his presidency. Moreover, these Democrats say, lawmakers have a constitutional obligation to hold the president accountable.

“The way the administration keeps stonewalling, they have to do something,” said Mark Seymour, a lawyer from Concord.

Yet even as the debate intensifies among House Democrats over whether to go forward with a vote, which may prove difficult for vulnerable incumbents in districts where impeachment is unpopular, it has not been a contentious issues in the Democratic presidential primary.

Ms. Warren, who enjoyed a fund-raising and polling surge after calling for impeachment following the release of Mr. Mueller’s report in April, does not routinely raise the topic, much less use it as a cudgel. And candidates like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker are feuding more over their records and issues such as health care and criminal justice.

Mr. Biden has stuck close to Ms. Pelosi, the House speaker, who has been deliberate in her approach and has irritated some on the left because of it. Yet the former vice president said in a radio interview this week that if Trump administration officials “continue to stonewall” Congress’s efforts to conduct oversight, the lawmakers will “have no choice but to file articles of impeachment.”

Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic donor, may have been able to nudge impeachment more to the center of the primary had he directed his money into advertisements pressuring Democrats to speak out, as he had hinted he might. But Mr. Steyer decided to enter the race himself instead, and has so far used his ample resources on mailers that say little about impeachment and instead sound the same populist and progressive notes as others in the campaign (“Tom knows how to beat corporate power”).

And while a Politico/Morning Consult poll following Mr. Mueller’s appearance before Congress revealed that 64 percent of Democrats back impeachment and only 18 percent oppose it, there’s a difference between support and intensity.

“Most Democrats are more animated by the racism, the policy differences and the behavior than they are by the possibility of impeachment,” said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic pollster.

At two major gatherings held this week by African-American advocacy groups — the N.A.A.C.P. convention in Detroit and the Urban League’s conclave in Indianapolis — Mr. Trump’s unpopularity was universally understood. But there was little clamor from attendees about impeachment, and panel discussions centered more around policy issues important to the black community.

The topic was not completely absent from the conferences: The N.A.A.C.P. members voted unanimously to support a resolution in favor of impeaching Mr. Trump, and Ms. Warren used her speech there, on the same day as Mr. Mueller’s testimony, to reassert her support for an inquiry.

But conversations with individual voters indicated that they were mostly eager to remove the president via the ballot box. Many, in fact, said defeating Mr. Trump in 2020 was their top voting issue.

Debbie White, a Cincinnati resident who attended the Urban League conference, made clear it was her highest priority.

“The operative word is electability,” Ms. White said. “The stakes are so high right now. Just beat him.”

In Wisconsin, a state that proved pivotal to Mr. Trump’s election, it was not difficult to find the same drift among Democrats toward 2020.

“I think if they don’t do something very soon, just forget about it and beat him next November,” said Jeff Loken, a retiree who lives in the Racine area and watched the entirety of Mr. Mueller’s testimony. “I think they would waste too much energy going through the whole impeachment process where they would lose their advantage with the American public.”

Sarah Beck, a Racine title company employee who also watched the hearing, criticized Mr. Trump, saying he “tried to interfere with the investigation, for one thing, and he didn’t put a stop to the Russians interfering with the election.” But she expressed doubt that an impeachment effort would be successful.

“I would love to see him impeached,” she said, “but don’t think they have enough evidence against him yet to impeach him.”

In the eyes of New Hampshire’s two House members, both Democrats, there is now sufficient evidence to at least move forward with an impeachment inquiry. Representatives Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas on Friday came out for beginning the process, using Mr. Mueller’s testimony as an opportunity to go public in support of an inquiry at the outset of the House’s summer recess, and on Saturday morning the Concord Monitor splashed the announcement across the top of its front page.

In Bow, however, no voters raised the topic during a midday question-and-answer session with Ms. Warren. Later on Saturday, at a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., she again left the gathering without being asked about impeachment.

“People are realistic, and they know it can’t get done before the election,” explained Terry Shoemaker, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic activist.

In Derry, it was not until after the town hall with voters, when a reporter asked Ms. Warren about “running on impeachment,” that she shared her stance on the issue.

“It is time for us to begin impeachment proceedings,” she said, adding that lawmakers should be on the record and be made to “live with those votes for the rest of their lives.”

But Ms. Warren also wanted to clarify one matter. “I’m not running on impeachment,” she said.

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