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The historic Republican rebuke of Trump, visualized

Sure, we’re talking about a small sample size here. In U.S. presidential history, there have been only four impeachment efforts, two of which targeted Trump. So describing something as the most bipartisan of four is not incorrect, but it should be considered in the context that this doesn’t happen very often. Or, at least, that it didn’t used to.

Nonetheless, that there has been a consistent pattern of a president’s party sticking with him in an impeachment effort makes the defections seen Wednesday stand out. Particularly when considering how much more polarized the House is than it used to be.

Let’s consider the three most recent impeachments, that of Bill Clinton in 1998 and those of Trump in 2019 and 2021. Below, we plotted each member of the House relative to how that member’s congressional district voted in the preceding presidential contest (those being the 1996, 2016 and 2020 elections).

Setting aside the impeachment issue for a moment, we see first that, in 1998, the dots are all much more clustered around the centerpoint — indicating far more congressional districts in which the 1996 results were not lopsided in one direction or the other. Over the next 20 years, the presidential margins in those districts expanded, a function of both gerrymandering and increased partisanship. This is also a function of how not-close the 1996 election was. Clinton’s rout of former senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) affects the dots’ placement as well.

The dots also show how much more common it was for a member of the House to represent a district that voted for the presidential candidate of the other party. Lots of purple dots — representing the nonpresidential party, or, in 1998, the Republicans — to the left of the centerline. Lots of orange to the right.

On the subject of impeachment, though, party makes a big difference. Most of the orange dots above are light in color, meaning they are members of the president’s party who opposed impeachment. Most of the purple dots are dark: members of the opposing party who supported it.

If we isolate those members who bucked their parties — members of the opposition who opposed impeachment or members of the president’s party who supported it — things look more interesting. A few defections in 1998, mostly among representatives representing districts that preferred the other party’s presidential candidate. Only two defections in 2019, including then-Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew (N.J.), who would later become a Republican.

In this vote, there were no members of the opposing party who voted against impeachment. There were 10 Republicans who supported it — including five representing districts where Trump was favored by more than 10 points in the presidential race. (For districts where congressional-level data aren’t yet available, we used 2016 values.)

The starkest outlier there is Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), part of the House Republican leadership. Her denunciation of Trump’s actions leading up to and during the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week was unflinching, providing fodder for Democrats giving speeches from the House floor as the impeachment vote loomed. She cast Trump’s actions in unusually nonpartisan terms, echoing the extent to which this highly partisan vote was nonetheless less partisan than one might have expected.

Another statement, from a district that backed Trump by nearly 20 points, might have stood out even more.

On Monday, Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) told a reporter that he would oppose impeaching the president. That position was very much in line with his approach to Trump since day one. When the vote came, though, Rice joined nine of his colleagues in supporting the effort.

“It has been a week since so many were injured, the United States Capitol was ransacked, and six people were killed, including two police officers,” Rice said in a statement. “Yet, the President has not addressed the nation to ask for calm. He has not visited the injured and grieving. He has not offered condolences. Yesterday in a press briefing at the border, he said his comments were ‘perfectly appropriate.’”

Those comments, it seems, pushed Rice in the other direction.

“I have backed this President through thick and thin for four years,” the statement continued. “I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But, this utter failure is inexcusable.”

And with that, Trump was impeached once again.

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