Updated Nov 15, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' problem breaking through on impeachment

A gif of President Trump seen through a television getting blurry.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Opening Day of the impeachment hearings hardly hit blockbuster status, generating middling viewer interest compared with other Trump-era political hearings.

Why it matters: Democrats are banking on the public spectacle of the hearings to shift more independents and Republicans in favor of impeaching President Trump — but new data about Wednesday's hearing shows the difficulty in capturing the attention of a nation that's developed a higher tolerance for permanent political drama under the current president.

By the numbers:

  • Day One's 13 million live TV viewers fell well shy of James Comey's testimony in June 2017 (19.5m); the Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh hearing from September 2018 (20m); and the Michael Cohen hearing in February (16m).
  • The impeachment hearing, which featured some newsy testimony from Bill Taylor and George Kent, generated 7 million social media interactions on Wednesday, according to data from social analytics company NewsWhip.
  • That's higher than the 6 million for Comey on the day of his testimony but shy of the 8 million for Robert Mueller's testimony -- and way below the 18 million for the Kavanaugh/Ford hearing.

Yes, but: While the other events were confined to a single day of viewing, the public impeachment hearings will play out over many days. It's unclear whether that could scatter viewership, or build interest over time.

Between the lines: A number of factors may be working to suppress viewer interest.

  • The outcome of the impeachment saga appears predictable and predetermined at this point: The Democratic-led House will impeach and the Republican-led Senate will acquit.
  • The testimonies are largely known ahead of time: Witnesses have already been deposed during hours-long questioning and the transcripts released. The information that comes out in public isn't expected to change much. The main difference is that it's being televised rather than playing out behind closed doors.
  • Media echo chambers mean there are few facts and narratives agreed upon by the left and the right.
  • The witnesses weren't household names until the last month, making them unfamiliar — and less interesting — to many Americans.
  • Americans could be experiencing hearing fatigue after sitting through the day-long slog for other high-profile Trump-era testimonies.
  • The daytime airing prevents many potential viewers from being able to tune in.

The bottom line: While public hearings may be Democrats' best chance to shift the status quo, 81% of voters say their opinions about impeachment already are mostly set.

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