Public Opinion on Impeachment: A Knowledge Problem?

By Annie Lindenthal ’20

President Clinton was impeached for his relations for Monica Lewinsky, right? Wrong.

The low level of public knowledge about impeachment is remarkable. With the recent release of draft articles of impeachment against President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress relating to a possible quid pro quo for political gain in the 2020 election, it seems like a logical time to examine public opinion about impeachment.

Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but due to the ill-informed nature of U.S. citizens, Bucknell Institute for Public Policy sought out to examine public knowledge about impeachment in their fall 2019 public opinion survey. They did so by asking respondents if specific offenses were grounds for impeachment.

The results demonstrate that 10% of respondents do not think that bribery is an impeachable offense, though the Constitution explicitly states that is an impeachable act.

They also show that 43% of respondents believe that engaging in personal immoral conduct while President is grounds for impeachment, demonstrating that some people might have mistakenly thought that President Clinton was impeached for this reason if they knew of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, rather than for lying under oath.

When looking at whether or not using governmental resources in support of re-election is impeachable, which Democrats have focused on in Trump’s impeachment proceedings, almost three quarters believe that it is, which could display public opinion about the current impeachment process.

We also examined public opinion on Trump and Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. Respondents were asked whether or not they believed President Clinton and President Trump’s actions in office were grounds for removal from office.

When comparing responses for the two presidents, we can see a fifteen percentage point difference in support for removal from office, with more support for Trump removal. This is an interesting, but unsurprising, finding considering the opinions discovered in the Fall 2019 survey and the current Trump impeachment proceedings that are regularly depicted in the media.

When looking more closely at the question about using governmental resources in support of one’s own re-election and the belief that President Trump’s actions are grounds for removal from office, there is a strong correlation between thinking that this offense is not impeachable and that Trump’s actions are not grounds for removal from office. The opposite relationship exists for people who believe it is grounds for impeachment and the president’s actions call for removal.

The survey results suggest that the electorate is, in fact, ill-informed about impeachment and that knowledge impacts support, or opposition, for impeachment. It is interesting that even at a time when impeachment is at the forefront of the news and could be imminent, the public still does not know much about it. How can government officials properly represent their constituents if they are uninformed about a pressing issue in the current political sphere?


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