Mueller report: Tale of two parties

Mueller report: Tale of two parties
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Although still early, 2020 is currently a tale of two parties. For Republicans, it is the best of times; for Democrats, it is the worst of times. With a now unencumbered incumbent seeking reelection, for Republicans is a season of light; with a now engorged field running left, for Democrats it is a season of darkness. 

Trends are not necessarily outcomes. However, they do create momentum in a direction, which gets increasingly difficult to change. Inertia exists not only in physics, but in politics too. Parties in forward motion tend to keep going forward; parties in reverse tend to stay in reverse. 


Right now, Democrats need something to alter these trajectories — sooner, rather than later. Yet, over a year and a half away, today’s 2020 race offers reasons why Republicans and Democrats could continue their current courses for a while.

The Mueller report has raised President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s ceiling — and with it, Republicans’ prospects. The report in itself is not a positive, but it effectively becomes one by removing the president’s biggest negative. It also offers Trump to realize the full potential from future positives. 

The Russian collusion accusation did not seemingly affect Trump’s base. However, it undoubtedly lowered the ceiling for the president among establishment Republicans and independents. With it now raised, it offers greater potential for future positive news to reach them and Trump to rise on it. 

This could not have come at a better time for Trump. The 2020 campaign begins in earnest in just over two months, when Democrats gather for their first debate. Any incumbent seeking reelection initiates a referendum on his record. Coming when it did, the report invites a positive reevaluation of Trump’s record. No president could benefit more from this. 

If Trump effectively received a positive — extending both forward and backward — from the Mueller report, Democrats absolutely received a negative. Like Trump’s outcome, theirs too spans past and future. 

Democrats were heavily invested in the collusion charge and adamant about its veracity. Obviously, they lost retroactively there. They also face a potential future loss from any counter-investigation of the collusion charge’s origins. This could resurrect old ghosts — the Clintons — they would prefer to remain entombed. 

Further, Democrats’ current 2020 problems go beyond the Mueller report and Trump to their own field, which only gets more crowded, less clear and further to the left. 

The crowded field means the nomination battle will probably be prolonged — especially with Democrats’ proportional awarding of delegates. The longer it goes, the less clear the outcome — with that uncertainty only exacerbating divisions among Democrats as they become more invested in rival candidates. And the more general election ammunition they are likely to give Trump during their series of 12 nomination debates. 

The one certainty in Democrats’ long and contentious contest is it will be a struggle over who can move further left. Even now with 20 declared candidates, representing virtually every conceivable demographic and geographic area, almost all are fighting over only one ideological position: The party’s left. This leftward dynamic was apparent in 2016 too, but that promises to pale compared to 2020’s. 

A prolonged contest means Democrats will have less time to move toward the pivotal center and more ground to make up when they finally do. Again, 2016 is instructive. Just a two-person contest, it went all the way to the convention. During 2020, an effectively unencumbered and unchallenged Trump will have a head start playing to Independents and defining the Democrats’ eventual nominee. 

In presidential elections, separation is crucial but usually marginal. Since 1992, the last time an incumbent president lost re-election, the average separation between the parties is just 4.3 percent of the popular vote. That means, on average, a switch of 2.15 percent would result in a popular vote tie. 

Democrats need no reminding what winning by half that 1992-2016 margin means. They are not competing on a level field. Trump tilted it decisively his way in 2016 and Democrats found a 2 percent margin insufficient for victory. 


Were that not enough, that fight over this small margin is also waged over a very small slice of the electorate. Since 1992, on average 6.2 percent of the popular vote has not gone to either major party. That effectively means the two are fighting over just 93.8 percent of the electorate in an average contest. Further factoring out their two base supporters (according to 2016 exit polls: 36 percent Democrats and 33 percent Republicans), and the two parties are fighting over roughly a quarter of voters. 

In a contest where separation is crucial and small margins determine winners, going in opposite directions is not where one of the parties wants to be headed. Right now, that party is the Democrats’.  

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.