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.
Originally published on The Resurgent