How will the Jan. 6 committee hearings affect public opinion?

Political scientist: Hearings expected to have little effect on 2022 races, but may still impact the 2024 presidential campaign
Brian Gaines
It’s unlikely that the ongoing Jan. 6 committee hearings will resonate with the public as much as the Watergate hearings did 50 years ago, said University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign political science professor Brian Gaines. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer.)

Brian Gaines is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a senior scholar at the U of I System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Gaines, who studies elections and public opinion, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the potential impact of the Jan. 6 select committee hearings investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Televised congressional hearings can make for historic moments, but their ultimate impact on public opinion can be much more muted. Will the ongoing Jan. 6 committee hearings reverberate as much with the public as the Watergate hearings did 50 years ago?

My first political memory is a dim recollection of the Watergate hearings taking over our family TV time in Bedford, Massachusetts. I think it’s very unlikely that the Jan. 6 committee hearings will come close to matching those hearings in terms of impact. Watergate is a very high bar, and it might be more realistic for Democrats to hope for public attention comparable to hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987 or, from the dawn of television, the Hiss Chambers case of 1948. I’m doubtful, however, that they will rate even that high.

Going against the Jan. 6 hearings having much of an effect on public opinion is the stacked nature of the committee, with only two on-the-outs Republicans joining the majority Democrats. Also, the one-sidedness of the entire process, where no one has presented alternative perspectives or cross-examined witnesses, hasn’t helped its cause.

And, most critically, former President Donald Trump is already out of office, having twice been impeached but not convicted. Viewers in the early 1970s wanted to know just how closely their sitting president was involved in the botched burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. President Trump, on the other hand, has been out of the White House for nearly 18 months.

Before the Jan. 6 hearings started, some experts claimed they wouldn’t reveal anything the public didn’t already know and could potentially be viewed as a partisan exercise. How have those criticisms held up?

So far, there has been little novelty*, despite promises to the contrary. That they are partisan rather than truly bipartisan is not really in doubt. This is not a fact-finding endeavor, and it is the job of the Justice Department, not this committee, to pursue federal criminal cases. So it seems clear that the purpose of the hearings is to persuade swing voters that Donald Trump behaved terribly as his term came to a close and that the Republican Party is complicit.

A number of GOP primary winners have backed former President Trump’s claims about a stolen 2020 presidential election. What effect will the Jan. 6 committee hearings have on the midterm elections this fall?

Trump is batting below .500 in his primary endorsements, but some of his allies have won high-profile races, often in safe seats.

For months, there have been many strong signs of yet another large midterm swing against the sitting president’s party, which would be the fifth such electoral occurrence in a row. Among the reasons are soaring inflation, the disastrous decampment from Afghanistan, unhappiness with COVID-19 policies, and the perception that President Joe Biden is confused, out of touch, and too old to handle his very tough job. Desperate Democrats are hoping that (the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade) will energize their pro-choice base and that these hearings will let them paint the entire Republican Party as dangerous and irresponsible.

I’m not expecting either tactic to work very well, even where pro-Trump candidates are on the ballot. For instance, I don’t think the high-profile Pennsylvania Senate contest between Dr. Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant governor of the state who has just had a stroke, will be decided by Trump having endorsed Oz.

In the near term, the quickest check for general sentiment nationwide is to watch “generic ballot” results, surveys on which party the respondents prefer in congressional races when they are not given actual candidate names.

Is the U.S. right now too polarized for these hearings to have much of an effect on public opinion, or do you think they’ll do enough to persuade swing voters in the midterms and perhaps, even further out, the 2024 presidential election?

Polarization is more extreme at the elite level than among the masses, but both kinds are involved. Many Republicans—not only those still attached to Trump—are disinclined to take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats as reliable and trustworthy. But Pelosi acted first, with the decision to craft a single-message process that is pretty much yet another after-the-fact impeachment investigation.

As for 2024, a great deal will depend on who secures the nominations of the two major parties. The hearings may yet bury Trump once and for all, but their shadow will be longer if he can rise from the ashes and secure the Republican nomination. Personally, I don’t foresee that outcome.

*Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on June 20, 2022. On July 28, after further hearings, Gaines provided an update.

Since I wrote this analysis, further sessions have revealed some novel details about President Trump's behavior just before, during, and after the riot. Some of the hair-raising testimony, including a claim that he physically attacked his own Secret Service agents, is hotly contested. As I write, competing survey results suggest either strong or weak impact of the hearings on voter opinions. On balance, I continue to think that the hearings will have only a small impact on the 2022 midterm elections, but might still plant the seeds for someone other than Trump to win the GOP nomination in 2024. 

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Phil Ciciora, Illinois News Bureau