Pollster Charlie Cook writes, “There is a school of thought that if Democrats simply put up an attractive and qualified, non-polarizing nominee, they should win in 2020 but that if they nominate someone with sharp edges who is a magnet for controversy, maybe not. That’s what the next two and a half years will be about.” Let me suggest five factors that will tip the outcome one way or another.
By far the most important factor is President Trump. We cannot assume he will be in office in 2020 or that he will run for reelection, although both seem possible since a two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to remove him is a nearly insurmountable hurdle, and Trump is not one to doubt his own abilities, no matter what polls say. Here two wild cards remain in play: Does either the special prosecutor of a Democratic majority in one or both houses demand, with a court’s backing, that Trump turn over financial documents (including tax returns) and/or actually sever ties with his businesses? If so, he might decide one term is enough. Alternatively, if the current chaos intensifies and Trump becomes increasingly crazed, might he decide that he has accomplished more in four years than any president has in eight? In that Trumpian formulation, maybe he would decide to cash in the chips on his presidency (which would depreciate if he loses in 2020).
If Trump runs, all sorts of people — former vice president Joe Biden, in particular — might choose to run as “save the country” candidates, even pledging to run for just one year. Moreover, Trump’s presence in the race would make an independent conservative, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) or Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz), more likely, especially if the Democrats run far to the left.
The second most important factor is how well or badly the country is doing in 2020. If Trump has managed to sink the stock market, send us into a recession, plunged us into war, etc., the country may be desperate for a competent, albeit boring, candidate with substantial expertise. (Cook notes that “at the time of the Nov. 3, 2020, general election, Biden will be 77 years old, turning 78 later that month; Kerry will be 76, turning 77 in December.” The notion that an inexperienced businessman could run the executive branch would likely be discredited, while governors and senators with solid records and some foreign policy expertise might prosper. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is also a former governor, by the way. By contrast, congressmen, mayors and non-politicians will have a steep hill to climb if the country is in desperate straits.
Third, much depends on how and where Democrats pick up ground this year, if they do. Big wins in swing or even red states, the suburbs and among college-educated voters might convince Democrats that steady, moderate candidates are the keys to success. The national equivalent of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), for example — could get a lift. How do women candidates and women voters do? Does the #MeToo movement still pack a punch? (At this point, it is hard to believe Democrats would not put a woman on the ticket.)
Fourth, look to see who goes the extra mile for Democrats this year and makes a difference in harder-to-win areas. If Biden, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) or Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) proves to be a dynamo on the stump and collects plenty of chits, that will attract good press, donors and support in the party.
Fifth, what will be the country’s level of exhaustion and anxiety in 2020? If Trump continues on his frenetic, unhinged and erratic path — and there is little reason to doubt he won’t — the demand will go up for bland and boring. And just as after Watergate Jimmy Carter ran on the “I’ll never lie to you” pledge, the squeaky-clean candidates, the aw-shucks pols and the Democrats far outside the Clintons’ orbit of money and scandal will have a leg up. Temperament, as we have said, may have much more of an impact than ideology on an electorate on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (President Barack Obama was arguably the most liberal choice for president, but his calm demeanor and soothing rhetoric made him, not conservative Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), seem like the “safe” choice to many voters.)
The 2020 race will start the day after this fall’s midterms, but in political time, especially Trump time, that’s a lifetime from now. If Trump is the obvious GOP nominee, the odds favor the most anti-Trump candidate — in style, rhetoric, temperament, ethics, intellect and ideology.