If Democrats want to win the election in 2020, they must begin to shift their attention to fostering a center-right challenger to Trump in the Republican primaries. Trump will have a better chance of winning in 2020 if he faces no serious challenges from within his own party. Recently, polling has shown support for Trump within the Republican party at 87%. That is a solid voter base for Trump to lean on and presents a serious problem for Democrats. The Democrats need to soften up the front lines of support for Trump within the GOP by fielding a Republican primary challenger if they want to have a chance at beating him in 2020.
There have been just two elected presidents since WW2 who were not elected for a second term: G.H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter (Ford who became president after Nixon resigned, was not elected to his first term, so comparing him to Trump is less apt). The comparison to Bush is particularly important because in 1991, a year before the elections in 1992, Bush was the most popular president since records began, with an approval rating of 89%. But he still lost in 1992. So it stands to reason that, if Bush can go from an approval rating in the high 80s the year before to losing in the general election, then Trump can go an approval rating in the high 80s the year before to losing also.
The question is: how can Democrats make that happen?
In the long history of single-term presidents, two factors have played all-important roles in determining candidates’ fates: the economy and a popular challenger from within their own party. Of course, the Democrats cannot cause a small recession any more than they can control the weather. But Democrats can help fund a primary challenger to Trump. Both Carter and Bush faced serious primary challengers that almost certainly influenced their downfall. Carter faced an uprising from the progressive Left led by Ted Kennedy. Bush faced an outsider attack by Ross Perot. Both Carter and Bush vanquished their foes in the primaries, but the split within their based that these primary challengers fostered led to lackluster turnout in the general elections
It should be noted that the comparison to Bush is a bit more complicated than the comparison to Carter since Perot ended up running in the general election as well. But the damage Perot did to Bush as a candidate in the primaries probably would have had some effect on the outcome of the general election even if he had not run as a third-party candidate in the general election. Democrats.
Granted some have questioned whether Perot really cost bush the election. Fivethirtyeight.com recently released this short film called The Ross Perot Myth in which they dig into the 1992 election exit polling data to determine exactly how much of an impact Perot had on the race. But their analysis leaves a lot to be desired. They show that Ross Perot took voters equally from both the Democrats and the Republicans, but they do not factor in the impact that Perot had on Bush as a candidate. Had Perot not so effectively skewered Bush over and over again in the primary and then in the general election, voters might have turned out more enthusiastically for Bush in the 1992 general election.
Given the examples of Perot and Ted Kennedy, Democrats should hope for a charismatic and popular primary challenger to Trump. There are three outcomes the Dems could hope for.
First, a primary challenger to Trump would give the Democrats an opportunity to preview arguments for the general election. A challenger could potentially also split up the Republican base and damage the unity that the GOP is so famous for. This most basic step toward dividing the Republican party would seem like a necessary condition for having a chance at beating Trump in the general election.
Second, a more ambitious outcome would be for a Republican primary challenger to pull a Ross Perot and upset the Republican party balance both in the primary and in the general election. If a primary challenger to Trump were to gain enough momentum in the primaries, they could potentially run as an independent in the general election as Perot did siphon off momentum from Trump. Currently, this seems like a pipe dream, but remember, this is exactly what happened to Bush, who had nearly identical support in the polls a year out from the general election. Moreover, an independent candidate might even win the presidency, which could be an acceptable outcome for anti-Trump Democrats. But that is even more far-fetched.
Third, in their wildest dreams, such a primary challenger would actually beat Trump in the primary. Franklin Pierce, who was sworn in as the 14th president in 1852, stands alone as the only elected president who has ever been denied his party’s nomination for a second term. So it is possible in theory. But at this point, it is almost impossible to see how anyone could beat Trump in the primaries given that he has almost 90% support in the polls. Of course, a recession could change that math. Still, the odds are unlikely.
With all of that being said, let’s take a look at possible primary contenders that could aid the Democrats in their efforts to take down Trump in 2020.
William Weld announced his candidacy back in April with a video chock-full of clips of Trumps most controversial moments: that time said neo-nazis in Charlotte, NC, were “good people,” Trump’s coziness with Putin, and of course, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes. Weld is a conservative when it comes to economics and finances, but he ran for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket in 2016, and as a Libertarian, he supports many progressive positions on issues ranging from abortion to climate change. This mix offers a good option to Democrats who are concerned about preserving social justice victories while also giving center-right conservatives an economic policy platform they can support.
Former Ohio governor John Kasich is considering getting back in the game after a strong showing in the 2016 elections. Though he ultimately lost in 2016, he made inroads with more moderate conservatives by coming out against Planned Parenthood and supporting the Keystone Pipeline. But Kasich has also scored points with liberals who appreciated his support for Medicaid and same-sex marriage. He also strongly opposes many of Trump’s strategies on issues ranging from immigration to foreign policy. “Tariffs are a bad idea. Debt is a bad idea. Family separation is a bad idea. Demonizing immigrants is a bad idea. And breaking down our alliances is bad too,” Kasich told the AP in December.
With Weld already gunning for Trump in the Republican primaries and Kasich weighing a run, Trump will face at least some resistance in the primaries. Weld (and Kasich, if he runs) will be aiming to pick up votes from moderate Republicans and Libertarians. They could also siphon off conservative Christians and centrist conservatives who prioritize family values.
If Democrats want to stand a chance in 2020, they should be doing everything they can to boost Weld right now. The smartest move the Democrats could make right now would be to go on the offensive and donate to Weld. Liberals should at least make sure that Weld gets to debate Trump and demonstrate a version of conservatism that is not part of the Trumpiverse. After all, without a serious challenger in the Republican primaries, the Democrats can all but kiss the 2020 elections goodbye.