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What did voters think of the Mueller circus? It wasn’t pretty

The media has weighed in ad nauseam. Now it’s the public’s turn

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler continues to claim the Mueller hearings were a win, but the latest polls show otherwise, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler continues to claim the Mueller hearings were a win, but the latest polls show otherwise, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Well, the three-ring partisan circus also known as the Mueller hearings is over. The hours of testimony, and the hundreds of hours of media and political commentary leading up to the highly anticipated grilling, are in the history books. The days of analysis, most based on little but educated guesses, are thankfully in the rearview mirror.

A week later, the dust has settled and the political class has rendered their verdicts. Democrats declared victory. Many in the media, surprisingly, called it a disaster, while Republicans said it was time to move on. What we haven’t heard much about is what the American people thought of Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff’s latest attempt to back up their claims of collusion and obstruction by the Trump campaign.

In a Winning the Issues survey done July 27-28, after the hearings, we tested voter interest and assessment of the Mueller appearance before Congress. Voters’ partisan affiliation played a role in both their interest and how they assessed the testimony. Almost half of all voters (49 percent) said they saw some of the congressional hearings and the testimony of the former special counsel. Fifty-five percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats said they watched.

Those may seem like high numbers, and they are. But in all likelihood, this high degree of interest reflects the widespread post-hearing media coverage, which focused on clips showing Mueller’s interaction with committee members from both sides. While most people didn’t sit down and watch more than six hours of testimony, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone tuning into a cable channel or getting a social media fix to avoid seeing the partisan back-and-forth that characterized the hearings.

The partisan nature of the hearings may also explain why a smaller number of independents — 37 percent — and moderate independents — 25 percent — said they saw the hearing.

[‘Squad,’ impeachment enthusiasts leave Democrats in Trump districts to fend for themselves]

Despite the Democrats’ best effort to bolster the credibility of their key witness, Mueller and his shockingly weak performance didn’t fare well with voters in their post-hearing assessment. Thirty-eight percent viewed him favorably, while 40 percent viewed him unfavorably. Digging a little deeper into the numbers with voters who will play key roles in the 2020 election, the survey found independents weren’t impressed (34 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable). Neither were suburban women (37 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable).

What people told us they heard from Democrats last week may explain their lack of enthusiasm. A combination of “allegations of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia,” “Mueller report and congressional hearings” and “discussions about impeachment of the president” accounted for 43 percent of what voters said they took away from the Democrats. And did it work for them?

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Overall, voters reacted more negatively than favorably, at 37 percent more favorable and 45 percent less favorable to Democrats in Congress based on what they heard. Unsurprisingly, Republicans had a lopsided view, at 14 percent favorable and 78 percent unfavorable. So did Democrats, coming in at 67 percent favorable and 14 percent unfavorable.

But what should worry Democrats is the reaction from independents (22 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable), moderate independents (19 percent favorable, 43 percent unfavorable) and suburban women (33 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable). Of the people who identified the three Democratic messages I mentioned earlier, the results were even more alarming for the Nadler and Schiff performance, at 27 percent favorable and 59 percent unfavorable.

Both the political and ideological centers responded negatively to what they heard from the hearings. The data clearly shows it wasn’t just Republicans or center-right independents who took a dim view of the Democrats’ strategic messaging. Moderate independents told us they weren’t thrilled either.

The survey data also raises the question of whether the Democrats’ decision to put all their eggs in the Mueller basket came at the expense of kitchen table issues. When we asked voters to rank 22 news stories on their importance in terms of their congressional vote, the Mueller report and congressional hearing came in 19th, with the economy and jobs at the top of the list.

Nor does it seem the hearings helped the Democrats’ satisfaction rankings with voters overall. Only 36 percent of voters said they were satisfied with the Democratic majority in the House, while 52 percent said they were not satisfied. As you would expect, Republicans were at one end of the spectrum (20 percent satisfied, 73 percent dissatisfied), and Democrats were at the other (60 percent satisfied, 25 percent dissatisfied).

But the really concerning news for Democrats is the fact that independents (22 percent satisfied, 63 percent dissatisfied) were at almost the same level as Republicans, with moderate independents slightly worse (21 percent satisfied, 63 percent dissatisfied).

The survey also found a split within the Democratic Party itself, as 68 percent of liberal Democrats said they are satisfied with their party’s House majority, while 49 percent (less than half) of moderate Democrats said they are satisfied.

Yet in the aftermath, Nadler and Schiff continue to claim victory when even their most ardent supporters, especially those in the media, have been highly critical of the hearings.

Former Obama operative David Axelrod tweeted that the hearings were “very, very painful,” while Harvard professor and Democratic activist Laurence Tribe called them a “disaster.” So did MSNBC’s Brian Williams. When it came to optics, NBC’s Chuck Todd admitted they were a “failure.”

With the Mueller hearings a dud, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who understands the risks for her party in a divisive and likely unsuccessful impeachment, has clearly decided to slow-walk the drive for impeachment. But as the number of Democratic House members favoring impeachment continues to climb, with some Democratic senators hopping on board the impeachment train this week, whether she can keep her caucus from what is likely to be another disaster remains to be seen.

Before any more Democrats join their colleagues to embrace impeachment, they might ask themselves a question. Did the Mueller hearings change the political calculus at all? A Quinnipiac poll (July 25-28) released this week found that voters, when asked whether Congress should begin the process to impeach Trump, opposed impeachment, 60 percent to 32 percent. A month earlier, their June 12 survey found opposition to impeachment at 61 percent to 33 percent.

If there’s anything to be learned from the Mueller hearings (and there isn’t much), it is this: If you’re going to put on a circus, you better have a net.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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