Why Did Clinton Survive the Impeachment Crisis? A Test of Three Explanations


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We would like to thank Kirk Randazzo, Lonna Atkeson, Anthony Coveny, and Regina Lawrence for their useful comments on this manuscript. We also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, who provided careful and constructive criticism of the early versions of this manuscript.

Carol L. Silva is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma in the Department of Political Science and associate director of the Center for Applied Social Research. Her work is primarily in public opinion research, science and public policy, and economic valuation.

Hank C. Jenkins-Smith is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma and associate director of the Center for Applied Social Research. He does research on risk, security, and public policy.

Richard Waterman is a professor of political science at the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. He is the author of such books as The Changing American Presidency, Presidential Leadership: The Vortex of Power, The Image-Is-Everything Presidency, and Bureaucratic Dynamics and has also published widely in leading journals.


In Federalist no. 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the impeachment process is a decidedly political one. We use data from a national survey conducted in September and October 1998 to examine explanations for Bill Clinton's survival of the impeachment crisis: the robust economy, his own high popular standing with the public, and the concomitantly lower public evaluations of his principal investigators, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Our analysis demonstrates that the performance of the U.S. economy did directly influence public support for impeachment, resignation, continued congressional hearings, and censure (four potential punishment options), but not in the manner most often hypothesized. More favorable assessments of the U.S. economy actually were related to higher levels of support for punishing the president. Evaluations of the president proved to be a double-edged sword. Although higher evaluations of Clinton's personal job approval ratings and of his personal ethics ratings are related to lower levels of support for punishment, Clinton benefited more from the former than the latter, as his approval ratings were high while the public held considerable doubts about his ethics. Finally, we show that higher public evaluations of Clinton's primary investigators, Starr and the U.S. Congress, were related to higher levels of support for punishing the president. As both actors had an exceedingly low average approval rating, however, this dynamic worked to Clinton's advantage.