The assumption among most people is that the 2020 primaries
will look a lot like a mirror image of 2012. That year, Barack Obama, an
unpopular president cruised to the Democratic nomination while a handful of
Republicans vied for the chance to unseat him. There is a chance, however, that
2020 may look more like 2016, a year when a presumptive nominee from the party
in power faced a strong primary challenge and the opposition party fielded more
than a dozen hopefuls.
There are a lot of reasons that Republican presidential
hopefuls should not challenge President Trump. President Trump is not well-liked
among the nation at large, but he has overwhelming support among Republicans. Given
Trump’s penchant for attacking members of the party deemed disloyal, challenging
the president can quickly end Republican careers, a powerful disincentive for
presidential aspirants. A primary challenge also has the possibility of
splitting the party and aiding the Democratic candidate. Conventional wisdom
holds that primary challengers weaken the eventual nominee.
On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons that prominent
Republicans should consider a 2020 run against Trump. The most obvious reason is
that Trump is already a weak general election candidate. Despite his 2016 Electoral
College victory, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, one of the
weakest major party candidates in history. The Electoral College victory was
tenuous as well. About 100,000 thousand votes in the right places decided the
election. That is about .000008 percent of the total. Six
states (MI, NH, WI, PA, FL, MN),
primarily in the Rust Belt, were decided by less than a two percent margin.
President Trump’s approval
is underwater in each of those states today.
There is also the strong possibility that Trump’s position
in 2020 could be weaker than it is now. The erratic
stock market, the trade war, the government shutdown or a number of other factors
could precipitate an economic downturn
that causes Trump to become even more unpopular. The Mueller investigation
could turn up information that damages Trump’s standing with independent
voters. The president could make a policy decision, such as making an amnesty
deal for DACA recipients, that fractures his base. With level-headed minders
such as John
Kelly and James Mattis exiting the White House, Trump’s agenda is likely to
stray farther from traditional Republicanism and alienate more voters.
By 2020, Donald Trump could be in a position similar to that
of Hillary Clinton in 2016, dominant in his own party but mired in scandal and unpopular
with much of the electorate. In the last election cycle, most Democrats thought
that Hillary was unbeatable and decided against running against her. It was
left to Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even a Democrat, and Martin O’Malley to challenge
her. In the end, Sanders mounted a serious insurgent challenge but eventually
fell to the Clinton machine. Joe Biden doubtless regrets his decision to step
aside for Hillary, a lackluster candidate facing federal indictment.
On one hand, if Republican candidates run against President
Trump and lose – or if he loses to a Democrat after being challenged in the
primary – they will be persona non grata within the GOP. If challengers to
Trump aren’t kicked out the party entirely, they can count on losing support
from the party for future campaigns.
On the other hand, there is also a risk if Republicans step
aside for Donald Trump. If the Trump Administration continues to founder and no
Republican candidate is prepared to mount a primary challenge then the
Republican Party could be setting itself up
for an electoral blowout. Midterm
results from 2018 paint a depressing picture for Republicans with the party
losing white suburban voters in droves. The GOP lost nearly every demographic
except for whites and evangelical Christians and those margins are shrinking.
If the Republican Party doesn’t alter course to change voting patterns quickly,
there is a significant risk that Democrats could gain control of both the White
House and the Senate in 2020.
It takes time to put a national campaign together and the
first contests of the 2020
primary season, the Iowa caucuses, are little more than a year away on Feb.
3, 2020. At the very least, groundwork behind the scenes for a primary challenge
would have to begin within the next few months. A campaign would need to be
announced by fall at the latest in order to have time to assemble a grassroots support network.
Deciding whether to challenge President Trump is sure to be
a tough call for any Republican prominent enough to stand a chance of defeating
him. Party loyalty, if not loyalty to the president himself, and a desire to
protect their careers will convince many potential candidates to stand down,
just as Joe Biden stood down in 2016.
Biden’s decision to step aside for Hillary turned out to be a
colossal mistake after Hillary Clinton
turned out to be a much weaker candidate than anyone imagined. 2020 might not
turn out to have a similar dynamic. Then again, it might.