Analysis: Cornyn's expected vote against impeachment is in tune with Republican voters in Texas

[This post originally appeared in The Texas Tribune on Febuary 4, 2020.  Graphics have been added to this version.]

Texas senior U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is certain to vote to acquit President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, and since Cornyn is up for reelection in 2020, it’s worth considering how his decision affects his prospects.

As with most things related to Trump, attitudes that are both intense and polarized along partisan lines are likely to motivate voters of both parties if impeachment remains an issue over the next seven months. Given voters’ attitudes, it’s hard to imagine Cornyn choosing another path, and just as difficult to imagine how his vote will change the existing partisan dynamic in the 2020 election.

According to University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll data, Cornyn’s full-throated support for Trump in the Senate impeachment trial has the potential to mobilize both Democrats and Republicans in November along strictly partisan lines. In an October UT/TT Poll, Texas voters with an opinion were evenly split: 43% said Trump had taken actions while president that justified his removal from office; 44% said that he hadn’t. Equal shares of Democrats and Republicans, 79%, said that he should or shouldn’t, respectively, be removed.

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Don't know/No opinion5%

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Don't know/No opinion4%9%4%

Three months and a Senate trial later, opinions have hardly shifted. In response to a similar question included in the Texas Lyceum Poll released last week, 45% of Texans wanted the U.S. Senate to remove Trump from office, while 45% wanted him left in place. A UT-Tyler-Dallas Morning News poll released a few days later similarly found 43% in favor of removal and 48% against. Both polls found splits in the preferences of Democrats and Republicans similar to those in the UT/TT Poll conducted before the impeachment proceedings.

These results should come as no surprise, given the intense opinions that partisans of both parties have toward the president. In October UT/TT polling, 87% of Republicans approved of the job Trump is doing as president, 61% of them strongly approving. At the same time, 90% of Democrats disapproved of his job performance, with a remarkable 83% strongly disapproving.

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Approve strongly4%25%61%
Approve somewhat2%16%27%
Neither approve nor disapprove3%8%4%
Disapprove somewhat7%12%4%
Disapprove strongly83%39%4%
Don't know1%0%1%

Trump invites strong opinions from both sides, but his ownership of Texas Republicans leaves Cornyn little choice but to sidle up to him. That’s especially true since Cornyn’s job approval rating among Texas Republicans falls 26 points short of the president’s, at 61% — with a comparatively meager 27% strongly approving.

The intensity of these views toward Trump — also evident in partisan attitudes toward removing him from office — underlines why there is likely no clear advantage here for Cornyn or his yet-to-be-determined Democratic opponent in November. At any moment, Trump has the potential to inspire a spiral of mobilization and counter-mobilization in both parties.

But the impeachment vote is likely to remain salient to partisans in Cornyn’s reelection effort. His vote in the Senate to exonerate the president ties the incumbent directly to Democrats’ dislike of Trump — their most powerful and, importantly, most widely shared motivating factor. And these issues are salient to Texas Democrats when they think about national problems. When asked about the most important problem facing the country in the October UT/TT Poll, more than a third of Democrats chose either “impeachment” or “political corruption and leadership.”

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Political corruption/leadership25%7%10%
Border security2%8%16%
Health care15%4%3%
Moral decline2%6%11%
Presidential impeachment8%3%5%

For Trump, and in turn, Republicans, it will be hard to put impeachment in a box and forget about it. A presidency built on the mobilizing power of grievance requires something to be aggrieved about. And impeachment appears to have been a major motivator and cash cow for the president as he rallies his troops against his enemies. The practical political stakes notwithstanding, letting bygones be bygones doesn’t describe the president’s personal style, and it seems unlikely that he will quickly forget about this one — particularly since his allies in the Senate saw to it that he was not convicted even as some of them acknowledged his wrongdoing.

At every turn, Cornyn will be caught up in the dance of polarized mobilization and counter-mobilization, with Trump calling the tune. The president’s support from all types of Texas Republicans leaves Cornyn attached to Trump’s reelection, a situation that, as with so many other Republican senators, no doubt influenced Cornyn’s decision to side with the president even before the impeachment trial began. Cornyn clearly expects that this is his best bet for remaining in office, even if the music stops.