Impeachment Support Grows, but So Does the Public Divide

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CULPEPER, Va. — Over lunch at the Frost Cafe, a corner diner in a picturesque pocket of Virginia that President Trump won handily in 2016, opinion over his impeachment is as varied as anywhere in the country.

Garland Gentry, 74, a pro-Trump retiree, declared the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry “another in a long line of hoaxes,” while Cindy Rafala, 59, a therapist, sat nearby and wondered, “If we don’t impeach, then what are our principles?”

Donnie Johnston, a newspaper columnist who voted for Mr. Trump but has since soured on him, said Democrats are right to look into the president’s effort to pressure the leader of Ukraine to dig up dirt on political rivals. Mr. Trump, he said, makes “a wonderful tyrant but he’s a miserable president.”

The shifting tides in Culpeper, a rural town of about 18,000 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and in communities across the country, are a warning sign for Mr. Trump as Congress returns to Washington Tuesday after a two-week recess and Democrats’ impeachment inquiry kicks into high gear. They suggest that while Americans are deeply split along party lines over the push to remove Mr. Trump, their views on impeachment are beginning to crystallize in some unexpected ways.

From Iowa to Texas to Virginia to Ohio — and especially in swing districts like this one, where Representative Abigail Spanberger, a freshman Democrat, flipped a seat long held by Republicans — interviews with dozens of voters suggest what public polls have begun to show: that there is growing support for the impeachment inquiry that could ultimately result in Mr. Trump’s ouster, even as sharp divides remain over his conduct and character.

Democrats, aware of the risks of a backlash by voters against the impeachment process, have been monitoring public opinion vigilantly and tailoring their message and strategy accordingly. On a private conference call on Friday afternoon, leaders briefed their rank and file on private polling of 57 politically competitive districts that confirmed what public polls have reported in recent days: while a stark partisan divide persists, public support is growing for impeaching the president, and for the inquiry itself.

An average of impeachment polls calculated by the website FiveThirtyEight found that, as of Oct. 11, 49.3 percent of respondents supported impeachment and 43.5 percent did not. A survey released this past week by The Washington Post found 58 percent said the House was correct to open an inquiry.

And polling by a group of Democratic strategists found a potential opportunity to sway the public still further: nearly a quarter of the respondents categorized by strategists as “impeachment skeptics” opposed the inquiry but were not ready to say that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong.

Those figures do not point to a broad consensus around impeachment, and the interviews in recent days made clear there is none. Republicans here and around the country view the Democrats’ inquiry as just one more effort to undo the results of the 2016 presidential race. Just 14 percent of them back impeachment, according to FiveThirtyEight, compared to 82 percent of Democrats.

At a weekly steak fry in Trump-friendly Bandera, Texas, a town that bills itself as the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” most people seemed to agree with Holly Mydland, a fiddler, that the inquiry is “just bull crap,” and the local congressman, Representative Chip Roy, a Republican who has said he wants to follow the facts, but insisted that “only in Washington are people all in a tizzy about this.”

But Michael Clark, 69, a retired purchasing agent for an oil company who considers himself an independent, said the inquiry “has merit — we need to know the truth whatever the truth may be.”

And in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus that will host a Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Don Foster, who voted for Mr. Trump but no longer supports him, said he found the latest allegations more dire than those investigated by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, involving Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“This one seems more true than the Mueller report,’’ he said. “I’m guessing that Trump really is guilty, I just don’t know yet.’’

Still, Democrats are confronting some warning signs of their own as they pursue what Speaker Nancy Pelosi has conceded is the most divisive process in American political life. While the Democratic base overwhelmingly supports impeachment, many share the view of Ms. Rafala, the therapist in Culpeper, who said she is “worried to death that it could backfire.”

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CreditCallaghan O’Hare for The New York Times
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CreditCallaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

In West Des Moines, Iowa, Dimeka Jennings said she is far more focused on the 2020 election than on the efforts in Congress to remove Mr. Trump, which she predicts will fail.

“We need to look at beating Trump, and doing so at all costs,” Ms. Jennings said.

And in Reno, Nev., April Friedman, 48, a teacher for students with special needs, said she thought the impeachment inquiry was important but wished the government would also address other more pressing issues.

“I’m in a Title I school and we have cockroaches in our trailer,” she said, referring to the law that mandates extra federal funding for schools with large concentrations of low-income students. “I know there’s a lot going on, but that’s what I’m focused on.”

When lawmakers left Washington for their home districts at the end of September, Ms. Pelosi instructed her fellow Democrats to speak about impeachment in “prayerful, respectful, solemn” tones in an effort to persuade the public that Democrats were acting out of principle, not politics. Two weeks later, it is not clear whether they have succeeded.

“I think the jury’s still out,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. For Democrats, she said, “the risk is less that voters disagree with them on impeachment and more that people will think: ‘Why are you engaged in this when my prescription drug bill has gone up, my health care is uncertain, my job doesn’t pay very well, my kid’s got student debt?’ ”

Meantime, the impeachment inquiry is barreling ahead as Democrats seek to build their case that Mr. Trump abused his power by using a security aid package and the promise of a White House visit to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate Democrats including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mr. Biden’s younger son, Hunter. On Friday, Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, testified behind closed doors, telling impeachment investigators that the president had personally pushed for her ouster based on “false claims.”

During their conference call on Friday, Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs the party’s campaign arm, urged fellow Democrats to focus on kitchen-table issues and to speak about impeachment in “direct, simple and values-based” language, according to aides who listened to the call.

The advice reflected the findings of internal polls that the most potent argument for Democrats is that Mr. Trump has abused his power and put himself above the law. It was also an acknowledgment that Republicans are succeeding at persuading some voters that the impeachment push is distracting Democrats from getting things done for their constituents.

“They’ve been hassling the president since the day he got in office,” said Diane Segura, 56, who works as a nurse near the 11th Street Cowboy Bar in Bandera. “I’m tired of hearing it, tired of dealing with it.”

“It’s just more of the same,” she added.

But for many Democratic voters, the impeachment push is long overdue.

“Regardless of what your party is, I don’t understand how you could look at that and think this is not worthy of an investigation,’” said Deborah Harris, a self-described “strong Democrat” in Iowa City, referring to Mr. Trump’s entreaties to President Zelensky. She added, “This is crossing a line.”

But in between there are hints of an important shift among a constituency critical to the president’s future: independents. The FiveThirtyEight tracker shows 44 percent of independents favor impeachment, up from 33 percent after Mr. Mueller concluded his two-year investigation. A memo prepared by Navigator Research, a progressive polling project, entitled “How to Talk About Impeachment,” found even stronger support among independents, with 51 percent backing impeachment.

Culpeper, a town that is older than America itself and sits roughly halfway between Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Va., offers a snapshot of America’s impeachment divide.

At the Rusty Willow Boutique, an upscale women’s clothing shop that was preparing for its grand opening, just the mention of Mr. Trump prompted a squabble between Sonya Pancione, 57, the shop’s owner, and Denise Reynolds, 50, one of her best friends from church. Ms. Pancione is dead-set against impeachment.

“Respect the office. It’s a democracy. People voted for him,” she said.

Ms. Reynolds loathes Mr. Trump and blames him for inciting racial hatred. She was once excited about his candidacy — “I thought we needed somebody who understood business in that seat,” she said — but says now that if he were impeached and removed from office, “it would not upset me in the least.”

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CreditJason Andrew for The New York Times
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CreditJason Andrew for The New York Times

Ms. Spanberger, a former C.I.A. officer and federal postal inspector who worked on money laundering cases before joining Congress, reflects the shifting tide. She won her district, which includes Culpeper, narrowly in 2018, casting herself as a moderate who wanted to solve problems like the high cost of prescription drugs. She visited Culpeper this past week, making it the first stop on a two-day “education tour,” but declined an interview for this article.

For months, she resisted calls for impeachment. But after the Ukraine news broke, she joined six freshman Democrats who have national security backgrounds in writing an opinion piece in The Washington Post to call for Ms. Pelosi to open an inquiry.

Now Mr. Trump and his allies are targeting vulnerable Democrats like her. In Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa and other battleground states, scores of Republicans turned out this month for “Stop the Madness!” rallies orchestrated by the Trump campaign. Here in Culpeper, the local party staged its own rally last Saturday.

“Abigail won on a blue-wave year, and she really won on this whole notion that she was going to go down and be an independent voice, that she wasn’t interested in impeachment, she was really interested in getting things done,” said Nick Freitas, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates, who helped organize the event.

“And here we are.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting from Bandera, Texas; Nick Corasaniti from Iowa City, Trip Gabriel in Westerville, Ohio, and Astead W. Herndon from West Des Moines, Iowa and Reno, Nev.