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 TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill 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 KerrySantorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Major Obama 2008 fundraiser throws support behind Beto 2020: ‘Time to pass the torch’ Would-be 2020 Dem candidates head for the exits 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 RomneyO’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House The 2020 presidential race: A 2004 redux? 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 ClintonMueller filings threaten Trump but fall short of case for impeachment Santorum: Dems have a chance in 2020 if they pick someone ‘unexpected’ Trump should heed a 1974 warning penned by Bush 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 ObamaBooker's potential 2020 bid is generating buzz among Democratic activists, says political reporter Obama: 'No ferns. No memes' in final plea urging people to sign up for ObamaCare O’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold 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 ClintonHillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — NRCC exposes security flaws 2 years after Russia hacks | Google Plus to shut down early | Scathing House report scolds Equifax for breach | McCarthy knocks Google ahead of CEO's hearing Press: Mueller closes in on Trump McCarthy dismisses Dem-led Trump probes 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.