With just five months until November, the House January 6th Select Committee’s ongoing public hearings beg one question: How will the committee’s revelations impact this year’s midterm elections?
To be sure, the events that took place on Jan. 6, 2021, were an unprecedented and disgraceful assault on American democracy, and the significance of this investigation cannot be understated.
It is essential that we establish a collective set of facts from that day, especially in light of the concerted effort by some on the political right to whitewash what happened. We must hold those responsible for the attack accountable, and do all we can to prevent history from repeating itself.
That being said, these hearings won’t produce a seismic shift in the political environment — meaning, they will neither hurt Republicans nor help Democrats in the midterms — given the country’s deep-seated political divisions and the extent of the Democratic Party’s political weaknesses.
The evidence presented thus far by the committee — which includes Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republicans that supports the investigation — seems to strongly suggest that Donald Trump was responsible for provoking his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol with the intent of jeopardizing the democratic process based on his willful lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
It will ultimately be up to the Justice Department to determine if Trump’s actions rise to the level of criminality. But whether or not Trump is guilty in the court of public opinion is an entirely different question — as is whether or not Americans will vote against Republicans, who largely continue to embrace Trump, if they feel that Trump is culpable.
Since the hearings began, Republicans largely have maintained their strong lead in the generic congressional vote, and there has been no positive movement in President Biden’s and Democrats’ approval ratings, nor negative movement in voters’ sentiments toward Trump and the GOP. Thus, it’s clear that the hearings will most likely not produce a demonstrably deleterious impact on the GOP’s fortunes in the midterms.
Indeed, the committee has an incredibly difficult task at hand: retelling a deeply divided electorate a story that voters lived through and already have fully formed opinions on based on their recollection of that day, and even more importantly, based on the news they choose to watch and read.
Even after the first couple of hearings, the electorate as a whole is no more likely to blame Trump for the violence on Jan. 6, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico survey. Further, viewership of the hearings was driven mostly by Democrats, a majority (57%) of whom watched, compared to just one-third (33%) of Independents and roughly one-quarter (27%) of Republicans.
The January 6th Committee’s challenge becomes even clearer when comparing these hearings to the Watergate hearings in 1973, which, importantly, took place before the advent of the 24-hour opinion news cycle.
During Watergate, the public was learning in real-time what the Nixon administration had done, and the bipartisan committee was able to, for the most part, establish a collective set of facts. And in the end, it was Republicans in both the House and Senate who urged Richard Nixon to resign.
Of course, there is also the fact that the Republican Party today is not the GOP of 1973. Today’s Republican Party has gravitated toward political extremes, and since the formation of the January 6th Committee, key party figures have tried to cast the investigation as a political witch-hunt and many still echo Trump’s false claims about election fraud.
While these Republicans who try to whitewash Jan. 6 have done the country a great disservice, it is important to recognize that both parties have had a hand in polarizing the country over the last several decades.
To be clear, I do not see equivalence here, but I do understand the concerns of those on the right who believe that the left has, when it has suited them, been willing to condone extremism for political purposes.
Our politics have become so divided that, even though most Americans say Jan. 6 was a violent insurrection (52%), rather than legitimate political discourse (30%), far fewer are confident that Congress can investigate this matter in a nonpartisan way, per a recent Economist/YouGov poll. Indeed, less than one-half of Americans (47%) say the Select Committee is carrying out a legitimate investigation, rather than a political witch hunt (36%).
Separately, the Democratic Party’s political weaknesses and electoral vulnerabilities also play a key role in blunting the political impact of these hearings.
Midterms are historically a referendum against the party in power, and Democrats face an increasingly hostile political environment, given the multitude of crises facing the country.
The president’s approval rating — which has historically been a harbinger of his party’s midterm performance — hit a new low this week: just one-third (35%) of registered voters approve of President Biden’s overall performance, while a majority (56%) disapprove, according to Quinnipiac polling.
In just the last week, inflation hit a 41-year-high, the average price for a gallon of gas reached $5, and stocks entered a bear market. Voters are struggling with higher prices every day, and fair or not, will take out their economic frustrations on Democrats in the midterms.
In addition to national Democrats’ messaging failures on the economy, the party has not been able to communicate a path forward on the other worsening crises we face, including rising crime, the situation at the Southern border and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
Let me be clear: This is not to say that voters in the middle don’t care about what happened on Jan. 6, that they don’t blame Trump or that they condone political violence.
Rather, given that most Americans have already made up their minds about what happened on Jan. 6, voters in the middle are clearly ready to move on, and will remain primarily focused on immediate quality-of-life issues like rising prices and surging crime rates through the November midterm elections.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.
WEYMOUTH, MA – June 10: Meat prices have risen, seen here at at Stop and Shop on June 10, 2022 in Weymouth, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)