Donald Trump could face a Republican challenger in 2020. Here are five reasons why.
A huge amount of media attention is currently focused on the Democrats as they seek their presidential nominee. I have argued before, that to some, this selection process began as soon as Obama beat Hilary in 2008, albeit no one could have predicted what would happen in the decade that followed. The Democrats were almost certainly going to win in 2008 and it was likely they were going to win four years later, too. When Hilary beat Bernie in 2016, some factions of the party were deeply frustrated and eager to unleash their campaign for presidential victory at the earliest possible opportunity.
This is not at all surprising, of course. The opposition party puts up a challenger and they run against the other party in the general election. In fact, I have also previously noted that so far, the Democrat primary race looks remarkably familiar. That is just what happens. The Democrats need a huge amount of things to go right, not least selecting the best candidate, for them to beat Trump, though. One term presidents are rare for a reason. If they get their campaign wrong, then the GOP will breathe a sigh of relief and will be confident of a second term. While they might not have their preferred president in the White House, at least he belongs to their party.
As maverick as he is, Trump is not immune to his own party’s movements. He was never a party loyalist, having flirted with both sides of the aisle during his life, including throwing around the idea he would run as an independent in 2016, he lacks establishment support and donations (OK, that’s less of a problem to a billionaire). More importantly though, Trump was elected on an imagine of the outsider; he was the underdog (again, weird for a billionaire). Pitted against the quintessential establishment figure, Trump defied the odds. He no doubt upset a few in his party during the process, though.
For anyone other than Trump, his first two years would have probably been enough to comfortably secure him a second term by appealing enough to the Republican base. Renegotiating NAFTA, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — an Obama legacy move — , appointing two conservative SCOTUS justices, and witnessing the stock exchange consistently break records is an attractive picture to some Republican voters. He remains a hugely divisive figure, regardless of what was spouted in the SOTU this week about bipartisanship. And not just amongst Democrats — who unanimously rally against him — but amongst some Republicans, too. The Democrats are clearly going to make a good go at 2020 and the door could be open for the GOP to do the same.
So, what does history tell us about the fate of an incumbent when faced with a serious internal challenger?
Put simply, the last three times this has happened, it has resulted in the incumbent president losing the general election, even if they initially defeated their challenger in the primary.
While it is almost impossible to quantify the specific net effect of an internal challenge on the overall result of a general election, should Trump face one, history says he ought to be worried. In 1992, Pat Buchanan launched a challenge from the right. Campaigning for immigration reduction, against gay rights, against abortion, and for social conservatism generally. Indeed, he would go on to famously say there is a war going on for the soul the soul of America; a war that many millions of Americans still believe is going on today. Buchanan seriously threatened Bush when he won 38% of the New Hampshire primary — incidentally, New Hampshire has proved fertile ground for rebellion.
Despite Buchanan eventually endorsing Bush at the convention, it was too late, and enough damage had been done. I again stress that it is impossible to know whether Bush would have beaten Clinton without the intervention of Buchanan (and I suspect that Perot’s candidacy was probably more influential) but Buchanan undoubtedly forced Bush’s hand earlier than he would have liked. This is, of course, is not the only recent example.
During the 1980 race, Iran became a huge deal and Carter was suffering badly in the polls, Gallup put him at 28%, and some even lower. Ted Kennedy saw the opportunity and duly obliged. Carter’s failed handling of the hostage situation in April 1980 added further fuel to Kennedy’s case. Ultimately he conceded one day before the party’s convention, but once again, the damage had been done. Carter looked un-presidential and unable to command control of his own party, let alone the country, and Kennedy’s challenge acutely compounded this. Moreover, unlike Buchanan’s conciliatory tone which included endorsing Bush, Kennedy ignored Carter, refusing to shake his hand on stage and largely ignoring him at the convention. The optics of which were monumentally damaging for a party seeking to win an impending election.
A mere four years earlier, the then incumbent, Gerald Ford faced an internal challenge from Ronald Reagan. Truthfully, the backlash against Ford began much earlier, most prominently in December 1974 when Ford appointed the liberal Nelson Rockefeller as his VP. But we have to remember, Ford was made Vice President (he was not Nixon’s first VP) and President (following Nixon’s resignation) without a vote being cast in his name; opposition, therefore, was almost inevitable. Reagan mounted a fight from the right, hitting Ford on domestic and foreign issues. Rockefeller announced he wouldn’t run as again as Ford’s VP, and Ford managed to cling on, only beating Reagan by 43 delegates. As the pattern has established by now though, the damage had been done and Ford went on to lose to Carter in November.
N.B. Nixon also faced challenges from the left and the right in 1972 but was unfazed, securing nearly 89% of the delegates.
Serious internal challengers then have a fearsome reputation. The potential to derail, or even kill off, the chances of their party colleague is huge. What remains uncertain is that will this happen in 2020?
If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention. A phrase usually associated with American writer, Tom Peters. It feels especially true in politics, even at the best of times, so making predictions this early on in the race seems foolish and, for the record, I am not saying definitively that Trump will face a Republican challenge. However, there are a number of factors which seem to make it possible, if not necessarily probable. There is a raw ingredients for it.
- Large amount of opposition to Trump: pretty much from day 1 there has been internal opposition to Trump’s presidency. I feel Cruz still looks uncomfortable next to him. Despite Trumps support during the midterms, there were several other lesser profile candidates who, no matter what Trump likes to think, were eager to distance themselves from his brand. This is not just a private sentiment felt by politicians, either. GOP consultant, Rob Sturzman has said: “it is completely feasible that there will be a long drown out Republican primary”. Democrat success in the midterms and an increased media focus on their selection (as expected) is also appearing to suggest that the cultural zeitgeist might be shifting. It is therefore possible that the Republicans seek a more moderate, stable candidate to take on a strong Democrat who is more in-tune with the electorate.
- A strong candidate base: his most vocal opposition has consistently been John Kasich who makes no secret of his dislike for the president. Kasich loses in the current polls though, so that might not worry Trump too much. Behind him are Flake, Romney, and — admittedly at more of a long shot — maybe Scott Walker, maybe Marco Rubio, maybe Niki Haley, maybe Ted Cruz (imagine Cruz Vs Beto…) maybe even Mike Pence?! The point is, the field is packed with experienced candidates, who each have their own credible motive to take him on. Some will feel bruised and unfairly defeated (Rubio, Cruz), others are strong because they can distance themselves from the toxic brand (Flake, Romney), Haley is probably the only member of the administration to leave on good terms and has certainly done her reputation no damage by doing so, and Pence could see a fairly clear path as well through serving as VP.
- The Trump brand: despite an…interesting… career in golf, steak, further education, and real estate, the Trump brand as president has probably been sub-par. He has a base, of course, but it is not huge. And despite the aforementioned policy ‘successes’ which would be popular with most other GOP leaders, he has failed to really see a spike in popularity. At this point it is worth remembering Trump did not win the popular vote. He was not the most popular candidate in 2016, in fact, he managed to wrap up the election-defining states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania with a majority of just 0.75% of the vote. He does represent a fascinating irony better than anyone else in world politics, however. An ability to boast openly about his successes, revel in the elite lifestyle and brashly show it off, comfortably be a member of the 1%, yet simultaneously claim to represent the interests of the middle class. Trump capitalised on his image as the establishment outsider; it will be very hard for him to do that again, as President.
The unlikely but not the impossible:
So far I don’t see those three points as too controversial and I am convinced that if someone chooses to light a fuse under either of them then Trump could easily face an incumbent challenge. But there are two more possibilities worth exploring.
- Trump quits: very simple, very crude, but there are a couple of motives behind this. Firstly, he is evidently an idiot. He gets bored and decides his work is done (after all, a brain that size can only deal with so much executive time). He considers himself the best president of all time and walks away at the top of his game — that’s what he’ll claim anyway. Alternatively, the Muller investigation finds something incriminating, GOP Senators realise they will have to turn on their man if they want to hold the White House, the writing is on the wall and Trump jumps before he can be pushed. Interestingly, leading the way for Mike Pence to seamlessly step in, fight the 2020 election, and subsequently pardon Trump.
- Interim President: it would be unprecedented, but people said the same about Trump being elected in the first place. This would represent a radical shift in how mainstream politics is conducted and would require a serious candidate willing to defy convention and political instinct. The candidate would campaign on stability and promise to restore the GOP to its base. The interim president would serve one term and not seek re-election in 2024. They would be putting the public good over personal interests and they would be responsible for a part detoxification of the Republican brand. While I quickly confess this is the most unlikely outcome, it would be an outcome that would worry the Democrats greatly. It would heavily rely on an exceptional candidate, also.
The Trump presidency provides the Democrats with a real opportunity to defeat a sitting president and by the looks of things, they will be firing on a cylinders attempting to do so. There are many pieces of the jigsaw to put together until then, however, and there are so many factors that make it an uphill fight for the Dems.
History shows that an incumbent’s greatest challenge could come from within. The challenger forces the incumbent to play a game they do not want to play. The president should be able to fight the general election as the president. A primary contest forces them to bring everything forward and play as a candidate, not as a president. Aside from the damage to prestige that this can cause, it drains resources, finances, staff morale. Normally it distracts from the day job of leading the county too, but Trump doesn’t seem to be doing much leading regardless, so ironically he poor executive leadership could save him.
Again, I must stress than I am not saying an incumbent challenger will come, but as shown, there is a lot of raw ingredients to play with in 2020. Should someone decide to step forward and take Trump on from within the Republican party, then there is every reason to believe they would succeed.