By Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland, Richard Cowan and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In Hollywood, it is called a false ending – where the story appears to be heading to a close but is not yet over.
President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial ended on Wednesday with a conclusion that was unsurprising – his acquittal. But in reality the end of the story will play out in November, when American voters go to the polls.
That is when Democrats will finally learn whether their gamble to impeach a president for the third time in U.S. history paid any electoral dividends in winning over undecided voters. Opinion polls during the impeachment proceedings suggested little political harm to Trump – opinions among Republicans and Democrats were largely entrenched from the outset.
November is also when Republican Party lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, especially those in districts and states that are a toss-up, may learn the political costs of erecting a human wall to block efforts to remove Trump from the Oval Office.
Trump’s lawyers argued that with elections nine months away it should be left to the voters to render the final verdict on whether Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate a Democratic political rival, Joe Biden.
The impact of the trial on the election is far from clear. By the time Election Day arrives, Trump’s impeachment, and the partisan battle around it, may be a distant memory for many voters more focused on bread-and-butter issues.
Still, the impeachment of one of the most polarizing presidents in modern U.S. history has shaken up the election race by energizing both parties’ bases.
“I think it’s done one good thing for Democrats. It has awakened some of the activists to the very real possibility that Trump will win a second term,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Trump has raised millions of dollars for his re-election campaign off the impeachment trial, netting $46 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 in the most lucrative haul of his re-election campaign. The money, raised during the impeachment inquiry, was mostly from supporters angry at Democratic efforts to oust him from office, Republican officials said.
Democrats, who have to worry about their fragile controlling majority in the House, saw massive fundraising spikes too on both Democratic presidential candidates and in congressional races.
Republicans and Democrats are likely to attack their opponents’ impeachment votes in the Senate and the House of Representatives in media ads during the election campaign, some political analysts said. In some places that has already begun.
Representative Joe Cunningham, a Democrat who flipped a South Carolina district in 2018 that had been Republican for decades, launched advertisements in his district this month to emphasize his legislative achievements to counter a wave of anti-impeachment attack ads by Republicans.
Cunningham’s approach echoes that of many Democrats, especially in vulnerable districts: Say little about impeachment and focus on accomplishments. “I just want to make sure the record is clear on exactly what we are doing, and where our focus is,” the congressman told Reuters.
When House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, announced the impeachment inquiry in September, many Democrats were hopeful of winning over a greater share of public opinion. Pelosi cited polls showing increased support among Americans for an inquiry into Trump’s conduct.
Over the course of months, public opinion edged towards support for impeachment but the hoped-for groundswell failed to materialize despite televised congressional hearings in which current and former government officials detailed a pressure campaign to push Ukraine to carry out the probes Trump sought.
Pelosi’s decision to launch the inquiry did quell a growing clamor within her party, especially from the left, for Trump to be impeached, an effort she had been resisting for months amid worries it could backfire on Democrats electorally.
Her decision gave the party a united public stance against what Democrats viewed as Trump’s outrageous behavior, a rallying cry they can use against Republicans through November.
Democratic lawmakers say the decision by Senate Republicans not to allow witnesses at Trump’s trial and to acquit him could come back to haunt them in November.
“A lot of people are going to look at the Republican Party and say, `They were more about protecting the president than they were about finding out what really happened,'” California Representative Gil Cisneros, one of the last House Democrats to back an impeachment inquiry, said in an interview.
Trump too can now boast he has survived both an inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election meddling in 2016 to help him get elected and now impeachment, efforts that he has said are driven by “Deep State” elements within the U.S. government opposed to his presidency.
Reuters/Ipsos polling shows that the impeachment proceedings have not had an impact on Trump’s popularity among Americans.
The latest poll, conducted on Feb. 3-4, showed 42% of American adults approved of his performance, while 54% disapproved. That is nearly the same as it was when the House launched its impeachment inquiry in September, when his approval stood at 43% and his disapproval at 53%.
“The ultimate deciders are the independent voters who seem to have broken at least even, if not slightly in favor of the president on the issue of fairness,” of the process, said Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, where Trump scored a solid victory in 2016.
Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, whose concerns over impeachment led him to abandon the Democratic Party for the Republicans, said of Trump: “I don’t think anybody’s invulnerable, and I don’t think you should ever say that.”
But he added: “I certainly think it’s benefited him.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Steve Holland, Chris Kahn and David Morgan; Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)