The 2020 presidential race: A 2004 redux?

Everywhere you look, it seems there’s another Democrat considering a 2020 presidential run. From the far West to the Northeast, presidential aspirants are making public moves, and as longtime Democratic pollster Paul Maslin astutely noted, “Nothing’s invisible now.”

The list starts with the 2016 regretfuls and also-rans, those who believe they either should have run or should have won last time. It expands exponentially in the U.S. Senate, where it seems the entire Democratic caucus is engaged in an exploratory effort. Then, it blows up further with governors, mayors and high-profile activists who believe their time is now.

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And while one could sort through this long list and start to make some predictions about who may have an inside track to the nomination, the most basic problem for all of these possible candidates is that the presidency in 2020 is highly unlikely to be an open seat. Said another way, unless President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE is impeached and removed, resigns from the office, or is seriously challenged by other Republicans (yes, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, I’m referring to the two of you) for the nomination, every Democrat running, regardless of how good the map looks for the party post-2018, will run with a disadvantage.

If you don't believe me then, perhaps, you should ask former senator, secretary of State, and Democratic presidential nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE about his experience in 2004 — another presidential year where an embattled Republican incumbent who previously lost the popular vote won reelection resoundingly. Or you could ask the soon-to-be sworn in senator from Utah, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump tweets video mocking Dems not cheering during State of the Union For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love Trump religious adviser calls anti-Trump evangelicals 'spineless morons' MORE, about his 2012 contest against a Democratic incumbent who was perceived as vulnerable because his party had endured a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms and his signature health care insurance reform bill was unpopular.   

The point with recollecting these two races is to remind opposition partisans that, in the modern era, ousting incumbent presidents who seek a second term for their party in the White House is a bit like being struck by lightning. It happens, but it’s rare. Since World War II, the only president serving a first term for his party who lost was Jimmy Carter. Lyndon Johnson, had he chosen to run in 1968, would have been running for his party’s third term in the presidency. Gerald Ford was running for his party’s third term in 1976. And George H.W. Bush was running for his party’s fourth term in 1992.

On the flip side of the coin, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFor 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love A year since Parkland: we have a solution Washington restaurant celebrates holiday with presidential drinks MORE and George W. Bush not only won reelection, but they earned more electoral votes in their second presidential race than they did in their initial run. Even President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIntelligence for the days after President Trump leaves office Barack Obama sends Valentine's message to Michelle: 'She does get down to Motown' For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love MORE, who fared worse in 2012 than in 2008, still managed to prevail in 10 of the 11 the toss-up states and those leaning towards one party or the other (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin).

While pundits operate from the belief that neither Kerry in 2004 nor Romney in 2012 were good candidates, and that they didn’t do enough to capitalize on the widely unpopular war in Iraq or the still struggling economy, respectively, the truth is more complicated. And it complicates every Democratic hopeful’s race. In other words, as I explained in late 2014, the structure of the 2016 contest seriously biased the race against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Sarah Sanders says she was interviewed by Mueller's office Trump: I believe Obama would have gone to war with North Korea MORE winning and, while the contest’s fundamentals are different this time around, high hurdles remain.

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The most obvious one is that unless Trump faces a challenge from a fellow Republican, he is afforded the luxury of running what’s called “the Rose Garden strategy,” watching his opponents jockey while staying above the fray. Of course, President Trump never has been fond of acting presidential or keeping his opinions to himself, so while few imagine he’ll be able to observe this competition without commenting, he’ll still have an advantage as an armchair quarterback. He and his advisers can spend their time strategizing the messages Trump could deploy against his various opponents and fortifying his campaign in a way that he never did in 2016 (courting partisans and fundraising).

All the while, Trump’s Democratic opponents will be metaphorically fighting for their lives, hoping to place high in the pre-election polls, and then, prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire. By the time one of them secures the nomination in spring 2020, their campaign resources will be drained, and the party may well be seriously fractured. These problems become even more likely, when, as was the case in 2004 and 2012, the opposition party fields a huge number of ambitious presidential candidates, eager for the fight.

So why do so many Democrats want to run? Probably because those who believe they can be president also believe they can beat the odds. And maybe this time, they will. Trump is especially embattled and unpopular with the public. Should the economy falter, he may well end up on Carter’s side of the ledger. Frankly, there’s little doubt that his 2016 outsider-takeover of a nomination contest looked more like Carter’s 1976 momentum win than any other recent primary campaign. And his poor relations with his fellow partisans in Congress also have more parallels to Carter than to Clinton.

Still, most of the Democrats running would be better off hoping that the findings in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s report are problematic enough for Trump and his family that he no longer can legitimately run as the Republican Party’s standard bearer. In other words, what the Democrats need is for Trump to not only seem to be like President Richard Nixon, but also for him to willingly leave the Rose Garden for good. In short, a unicorn — not a lightning strike — is what should be on most Democrats’ holiday wish lists.    

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.