The Democratic Donald Trump is coming

While Washington is currently focused on the midterms, as soon as the results start coming in, speculation about who the Democrats are going to nominate as their presidential candidate will commence. Before this debate heats up, let me risk an early prediction: the next Democratic candidate will be the equivalent of a Donald TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE on the left.

This is because parties learn from defeat, and the 21st century has taught lessons very different from those of the past century.  

In 1964, Republicans selected a presidential candidate considered too far right for the general elections. Indeed, Barry Goldwater was able to win only his home state of Arizona and five other states in the deep south, losing to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide. Republicans learned the lesson and in the next election the centrist Richard Nixon got elected.


In 1972 it was the Democrats who selected a presidential candidate considered too far left to win a general election. George McGovern suffered a humiliating defeat to Nixon, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Democrats learned the lesson and, in 1976, they retook the White House after nominating the moderate Jimmy Carter as their candidate.

The lessons political parties learned in the 20th century was that it pays to move to the center.

The 21st century seems to offer a different lesson.

Republicans attempted to win the White House with two of the most centrist and moderate candidates they could nominate in 2008 and 2012. They lost both times and seemed to conclude that moving to the center was not the best route after all. Accordingly, they sought the extremes and, to the surprise of virtually everyone, they won.

Democrats, who had nominated one of their most mainstream candidates, will certainly not forget this. Immediately after the election, many in the party began to speculate whether they would have had better chances with Bernie Sanders. The lesson of this century has been the opposite of the last one: with the political center getting progressively weaker, moderation becomes a losing bet.

In the case of Democrats, there is yet another conclusion from 2016. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama'Forever war' slogans short-circuit the scrutiny required of national security choices Which Democrat can beat Trump? Middle East scholars blame Trump for an Iran policy 40 years in the making MORE, as well as the previous two Democratic presidents, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE and Jimmy Carter, were able to cast themselves as outsiders, unlike the unsuccessful candidacies of Walter Mondale, George Dukakis, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreOcasio-Cortez blasts Electoral College as a 'scam' 2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant MORE, and now, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Polls flash warning signs for Trump Polls suggest Sanders may be underestimated 10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall MORE. Accordingly, Democrats will most likely seek a far left-wing outsider as their nominee for 2020, preferably someone who looks more like the current party base and hence is not a white old male.

The Democrat’s Donald Trump will look a lot different than the original Republican version.

There are three reasons taken from the 2016 playbook to support this assertion. First, like the Republicans in 2016, Democrats are likely to have a large number of contenders lined up for 2020. They have no obvious front-runner like Clinton in 2016 or Romney in 2012. That means that a candidate may win a number of state primaries with a relatively small share of the votes, as they will be split among several candidates, at least in the first contests. This will help candidates with the most steadfast supporters, even if they are around 25-30 percent of the electorate in each state.

Second, both Obama and Trump were successful in part because they are uniquely fit for the era of what Bernard Manin called “audience democracy,” referring to the increasing importance of media-savvy leaders in modern democracies. Since more conventional and moderate candidates tend to receive less attention from the media in general – and social media in particular – there is a structural incentive to radicalize one’s positions in order to attract more coverage.

However, these two reasons would not be as important if it were not for a third factor that became evident in 2016: the loss of control on the primary process by the political parties’ establishment. While this was very obvious on the Republican side, the Democratic National Committee went to great lengths to secure Clinton’s nomination against an unexpectedly strong challenge by a senator who calls himself a socialist. 2016 was perhaps the last successful attempt by the Democratic Party establishment to hand-pick a candidate.

Hillary Clinton’s failed primary bid in 2008 catapulted her as the logical choice in 2016, and she was the front-runner from the very beginning. Likewise, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' A US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE’s failed bid in 2008 made him the obvious choice for the Republicans in 2012, and he was the front-runner from the beginning. Both candidates, largely seen as moderates within their parties, failed to win the general elections. Republicans tried a different approach in 2016, and they were successful this time. Democrats are surely paying attention.    

Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira is a visiting scholar in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He received a Ph.D. in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia as a Fulbright Scholar and he is a currently a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo and FAAP in Brazil. His book “Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire,” was chosen by Foreign Affairs Magazine as one of the best International Relations books of 2012 and is now used as the textbook for inter-American relations in many institutions.