We have 2020 backwards: Not Trump, but his opponent, will be more determinant. In part, this is true because President Trump leaves few undecided: He has already had his impact. Therefore, 2020’s more influential variable will be the Democrat, who will be more divergent from normal challengers than Trump will be from a normal incumbent.
Elected incumbents are usually the story in their reelection and usually it is a good one for them. When the economy is good, so is their outcome: 11-3 since 1912, with the losses all coming when there has been negative GDP growth within a year of the election.
Yet even when incumbents lose, as did Hoover, Carter, and Bush I, they almost always determine the election’s outcome. Therefore, it has long been anticipated, predominantly by President Trump’s critics, that 2020 would defy the normal incumbent outcome, but that he would still be its determinant — only negatively. In their opinion, his divisiveness and unpopularity would defeat him, regardless of opponent.
Those seeing 2020 as unconventional are correct — but for the wrong reason. President Trump will be reelected because his challenger will be more determinant of the outcome.
Though rare, there are notable exceptions when challengers are a presidential election’s more important factor. In 1964 with Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, and again in 1972, with Democrat Senator George McGovern, challengers proved the election’s bigger factors.
These examples will more closely reflect 2020 than will normal incumbent re-election campaigns. They will because President Trump will be closer to the conventional incumbent than the Democrats’ nominee will be to the conventional challenger.
To understand the norm, and why 2020 will diverge from it, look back to the last incumbent re-election. In 2012, Obama won handily against the conventional challenger Romney.
Obama had a positive economy, as well as accomplishments — Obamacare and a tax hike — and setbacks — losing the House in 2010. Obama, a conventional president, against a conventional challenger, saw incumbency’s advantage carry him.
Dissimilar as presidents, Trump and Obama are similar in reelection factors. Trump’s economy is stronger than Obama’s, and he has accomplishments — a major tax cut and two recent major trade deals — and setbacks — losing the House in 2018. With these conventional attributes, Trump also can expect an incumbency advantage.
The divergence in 2020 will not be with the incumbent, but with the challenger. The Democrats’ nominee will be far less mainstream than Romney was in 2012. As their contest continues further left, the Democrats’ nominee will more likely resemble outliers Goldwater and McGovern.
Divergence has been the expectation for 2020 since 2016’s result. It has been assumed President Trump is divergence personified — unconventional and divisive. However, regarding re-election factors, he is close to successful incumbents’ norm.
Divergence will be 2020’s result; however, it unexpectedly will come from Democrats’ nominee. The consequences are likely to be equally unexpected.
When incumbents lose, their lost incumbency advantage generally brings them back to their challenger’s level: They become mortal. In the rare cases when challengers become determinant, the impact is far greater. As the incumbent’s advantage rises, the challenger’s divergence lowers: The resulting gap is widened further.
With both Goldwater and McGovern, it was a public perception of their extremism that generated their divergence. The perceived divergence of each from the mainstream allowed the incumbent’s advantage to widen into a landslide. This election’s elements already appear similar. Rather than whether President Trump can win, the better question is whether he can fully exploit his challenger’s divergence.