2020

The 2018 Impact on the 2020 Democratic Nomination

AWalter Head
September 26, 2018

Talk of Democrats winning the House (and maybe even the Senate), turns quickly to the question of what a divided Congress would mean for legislating and the odds that Democrats will call for President Trump’s impeachment. But, the focus on what Congress will or won’t do in 2019 misses two fundamental realities:

  1. Even now, with control of the House and Senate, Trump’s policy accomplishments have come mostly via executive action (i.e., pulling out of TPP and the Paris Climate agreement, immigration policy, and deregulation) and will most likely continue into 2019-20
  2. Everyone — the news media, the DC chattering class, the base of the Democratic party — is more interested in who will be running in 2020 than what will (or most likely, won’t) happen on Capitol Hill.

After watching him for the last year and a half, this unpredictable and unconventional president has now become more predictable and expectedly unconventional. He likes drama. He wants attention. Most important, he is 100 percent committed to his base at the expense of building bridges with anyone else. As such, the idea that he will — if confronted with a Democratic Congress — become the 'deal maker' he sold himself to be in 2016, is very unlikely. He likes a fight more than a compromise. Of course, even if he wanted to flip the script in 2019 and try to cut deals with Democrats, he has alienated any Democrat who was ever tempted (or felt pressured) to work with him. His best opportunity to woo Democratic Senators was in 2017. Ten Democrats came to DC that January knowing that they were up for re-election in a state that Trump carried. No Democrats up in 2020 sit in red states.

Moreover, if Democrats have a huge night: flipping the House by a significant margin, picking up the Senate (or even gaining a seat) and winning governorships and state legislative seats across the country, they will have even less incentive to accommodate Trump. The election will have been a massive rebuke to the president. What incentive will they have to work with him?

There is one group, however, that will be worth watching, regardless of how big (or small) the wave is on November 6th; the number of House Democrats who win in swing/GOP-leaning CDs. Almost all of them are running as problem solvers and bipartisan deal-makers who are more interested in breaking gridlock than playing zero-sum politics. While they aren’t likely to cut deals with the Trump White House, they’ll also loathe spending their first few months on Capitol Hill in impeachment proceedings.

But, let’s be real. Within days of the midterm election's end, the race for the Democratic nomination in 2020 will begin. It will suck up the collective energy of DC more than anything that’s happening on Capitol Hill. And, while we know midterm results have proven to be terrible predictors of the upcoming presidential election, each potential 2020 candidate will try and prove that they are the best candidate to build upon, fix, or continue the trends of 2018.

If Democrats have a great election night, well, every candidate has the chance to make the case for why they’d be the best nominee in 2020. For example, if Stacey Abrams in Georgia and/or Andrew Gillum in Florida are successful in their gubernatorial bids, progressive candidates and candidates of color have a better chance of convincing skeptical Democrats that these types of candidates can win in territory that’s been traditionally unfriendly to them. If, however, Democrats win governorships and Senate races in the Rust Belt, but lose them in the sunbelt, a Democrat who has appeal in “Blue Wall” states will be more attractive to Democrats than one who promises he/she can expand the map into Arizona, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.

If Democrats have a decent, but not a great night, look for plenty of presidential hopefuls and Democratic voters to argue that Democrats ran cautious and poll-driven campaigns that were too focused on winning over suburban, white voters than on motivating younger voters and voters of color. Another group of Democrats will warn that an opposition-only strategy will only give Trump more motivation and more ammunition to position himself as a 'victim' of Democrats attacks on his legitimacy and his commitment to Make America Great Again. Instead, they will likely argue, that Democrats failed to give voters a clear idea of who they are and what they stand for and must focus more on that than on Trump himself.

If Democrats have a terrible night — they fail to win the House and make only modest gains at the gubernatorial level, the collective primal scream from Democrats will be heard from as far away as outer space. It will make what is now a crowded, but not necessarily combative race for the nomination, one that could quickly descend into chaos and contentiousness as the pressure to quickly rally around a candidate who can beat Trump will be intense. One group of Democrats will argue that they can’t let the process linger: the longer the process takes, the more bruising and baggage the ultimate nominee takes on. Another group will argue that Democrats should be more concerned with choosing the right candidate — even if it takes a lot of debates and forums and primaries to do so.

For the next six weeks, all eyes are on what happens in 2018. But, what happens in 2018, will help shape the way Democrats approach the 2020 nomination process. Word of warning, however, to anyone who thinks they can game out which of the strategies will work; no one can predict the mood or the moment we will be in 2020. And, meeting voters where they are in 2020, is more important than basing your campaign strategy on where they were in 2018.