Donald Trump’s foot soldiers hone their impeachment message
Dan McKnight was practising his pitch as a Republican party campaign volunteer in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, one of the places that could make or break Donald Trump’s bid for re-election next year: “How much has the impeachment inquiry changed your pay cheque? How much of your day to day life is any different because of it?”
The 37-year-old, clad in baseball cap and hoodie, had just attended Trump campaign volunteer training in a local library. Party organisers had to adjourn the meeting repeatedly to add chairs and tables to accommodate a larger-than-expected group of volunteers.
In addition to the older, blue-collar white men typically thought of as Mr Trump’s most devoted supporters, more than a quarter of the people attending the session were young, a few were minorities and college graduates, and more than half were women. The training was called to prepare for a get-out-the-vote campaign in early November, when the Republican party plans to go door to door to register new voters from their party.
The training comes at a crucial moment for Mr Trump. It took place on the same day that he went on US television to celebrate one of the biggest victories of his presidency — a special forces raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant group Isis. But it also comes as the president faces the biggest challenge of his presidency — impeachment hearings in the US House of Representatives.
In places like Kenosha, even a small move in voter sentiment could make a big difference. In 2016, Mr Trump won the county by 238 votes, or 0.3 per cent. In last year’s midterm elections, the former rust belt county swung back from Republican to Democrat as part of a “blue wave” that swept several Midwest states, highlighting the challenge Mr Trump faces in holding together the electoral coalition that gave him the presidency.
“If genuinely damaging evidence accumulates (in the impeachment inquiry), then another 5 or 10 or 15 per cent of Republican-leaning independents could move from somewhat approving of Trump to somewhat disapproving of him,” said Wisconsin pollster Charles Franklin. That, he added, could make all the difference in a close election.
Mr McKnight said that he did not see impeachment making much of a difference to his fellow Trump supporters. And, “for the independents it’s all about the messaging”, he added.
Several volunteers said Republican voters are “immune” to what they see as Democratic attacks on the president. Matt Augustine, an experienced campaign volunteer in Kenosha, said that he thought independent voters “are getting tired of it too”. But they believed impeachment hearings could make it easier to recruit campaign volunteers.
The drumbeat of news headlines about impeachment “has already fired up the base”, said Mr Augustine. One volunteer who asked to remain nameless said: “The Democrats have been trying to impeach him since before he was elected.”
Tyson Froh, Kenosha County Democratic party vice-chair, said that impeachment may not be top of mind on the campaigning doorstep in Kenosha, compared with issues like healthcare. “Even someone like myself, who is pretty politically involved, impeachment is not a big issue for me,” he said.
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While he agreed with Mr Augustine that the impeachment proceedings “will help energise hardcore right radicals”, he said he thought that “Bush or Reagan Republicans are probably being turned away from him a bit now as more facts come out”.
Mr Franklin, director of the state’s closely watched Marquette Law School poll, said there was little evidence that the impeachment inquiry is motivating either Republicans or Democrats in Wisconsin. “At this stage, we don’t see either party being particularly mobilised by impeachment — but they were already highly mobilised,” he said.
“If there’s a vulnerability for Trump in Wisconsin, it’s mostly among independents who lean Republican and currently somewhat approve of Trump,” Mr Franklin said, but added that “so far we haven’t seen evidence that that group has shifted” to disapproval of the president.
His most recent Marquette Law School poll taken in mid-October showed a majority of Wisconsin voters do not support impeachment and removal from office for Mr Trump. Fifty-one per cent were against and only 44 per cent said they favoured such an outcome. A plurality — 49 per cent to 46 per cent — said the US Congress should not even be holding hearings into the matter — and the key voting bloc of independent voters showed less support for the hearings than the public at large, he said.
Mr Augustine, the campaign volunteer, said that if voters did raise impeachment with him while he was knocking on doors, he will tell them that “all this stuff is hearsay. They don’t have any proof. And that phone call? Everybody does that kind of stuff.”