Taking advantage of fortuitous timing, we conducted our latest swing voter focus groups mere hours after then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced he was authorizing an impeachment inquiry into President Biden.
With virtually no time to reflect on the news, what had our swing voters heard, and what did they think was actually driving the Speaker’s action?
By the evening of September 12, 10 of 11 Trump-to-Biden swing voters across Pennsylvania were aware of the House inquiry, but most had not heard the Republicans’ rationale. A couple thought it might be related to Hunter Biden, but most had no clue.
Then we pushed our respondents—six Republicans, four Democrats, and one independent—a bit. What did they think was really animating the decision to launch this inquiry? Their true views then tumbled out: Republicans were looking to get back at the Democrats because the Democrats had impeached former President Trump—twice.
“They just want to get back exactly what the Democrats did to Trump, and that’s why they’re doing this as retaliation,” said Kevin, 49, from Havertown.
“[It’s a] pissing contest,” declared Dean, 36, from Philadelphia.
Others said they are “annoyed” by the impeachment inquiry, labeling it “drama,” “out of left field,” “a waste of time,” “silly,” and even “bullshit.”
In fact, only two respondents believe there should be an impeachment inquiry, and none believe Biden has done anything that would justify removing him from office.
As respondents talked about the inquiry, the theme of retaliation remained top of mind:
“I’m sure there are lots of ulterior motives that are not shared in public,” explained Matt, 32, from Philadelphia. He continued:
“They’re going to start with this [impeachment inquiry]. As they investigate that, they’re going to find something else and move to something else. It is a witch hunt of whatever top official is in office. I just view it as retaliation. I think what’s probably going to happen for a long time coming is that if one [political] party is not holding office, they’re going to be attacking the President at that time for whatever personal reason they can find.”
Megan, 50, from Wayne, similarly remarked:
“I think some of it is retaliation. And some of it is just to push Biden—not out of the way—but for those people who are on the fence [to say], ‘We don’t want to vote for [Biden]. We’d rather vote for Trump.’ I don’t know if [House Speaker] McCarthy actually wanted to do this, but it seems like he’s being pressured from some of the Republicans.”
The two respondents who thought an inquiry was justified had very different reasons. One was Matt, quoted above, who was suspicious of “ulterior motives.” Despite concerns that the GOP is engaging in “retaliation,” he said about Biden:
I don’t know all the details because every [bit of] information is skewed, but there could be a history of corruption of money, especially going to him or his family throughout his years in office and different positions his family has held.
Even you look back [and] there were drugs in the office, and it was just swept under the rug, and it disappeared from all media suddenly. Or, they find hidden documents in someone’s personal home, and suddenly, they find hidden documents in another person’s home at the exact same time. What are the odds of that happening, being discovered and pursued at the exact same time for two different people? That there’s clearly things that are being kept secret and withheld.
So, with an impeachment inquiry, there could start to be an investigation. Being that there’s a year-and-change until elections, I don’t think anything is going to happen from now until then. So it would be of interest to pursue it. I would not expect anything to become of it by the time his term is over.
Matt fits into the “What’s the harm in looking?” crowd. Then there’s Chrismary, 28, from Allentown, with whom we had this illuminating exchange:
Crismary: For me, it’s more the mental health aspect. The last couple of speeches he’s given, he seems to be very out of it, scrambling his words and things like that.
Moderator: Crismary, you can’t remove somebody from office or conduct an impeachment inquiry based upon their mental acuity.
Crismary: Okay. Well…
Moderator: So is there something he’s done as president, an action he has taken?
Crismary: I would say no then.
Crismary’s concern illustrates the far greater risk for Biden: his age. In fact, 10 of 11 respondents told us there should be a Constitutional amendment setting a maximum age for the President. When we asked what that limit should be, the answers ranged from 65 to 75. Using that standard, both Biden and Trump would have been forced into retirement years ago.
In the end, Biden’s greatest political risk is not that he’s being scrutinized by House Republicans but instead by fickle voters in the political middle who worry he’s past his sell-by date.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Sago. Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.