U.S. Presidential Candidates: On Your Mark, Get Set, Go

October 23, 2018
5 min read

"Days after the election, the battle for 2020 will begin." –Jonathan Katz

When polls close on November 6 multiple presidential contenders, primarily democrats, will be lining up like runners at the starting block. They are ready to take on each other and the likely Republican candidate incumbent President Donald Trump.

Regardless of the midterm election outcomes, the 2020 Presidential election is about to take center stage. Likely one of the most contentious in modern American history, it promises an unpredictable impact on U.S. political, economic, and foreign policy for the next two years. It comes at a time when Americans are increasingly polarized based on party affiliation, Republican versus Democrat, and on issues of priority, including economic and social matters, including gun control, healthcare and immigration.

No doubt the results of the upcoming midterms elections will be impactful for national politics, especially if Democrats take back the House of Representatives. A split Congress would make it difficult for the Trump administration to move forward on key agenda items and bog down the White House with Trump-related investigations. Midterm outcomes could impact foreign policy, including in the area of sanctions, and U.S. engagement on climate change, democracy and human rights — issues democrats are increasingly concerned about. 

With that said, November elections are a critical factor going forward and the warm up act for an historic clash that is likely to lead to a more divided and distracted America. There are several other key factors, in addition to the mid-term elections, that are likely to impact the 2020.

First, the economy and its success has always been is a major factor in determining the outcome of U.S presidential elections. The U.S. economy has been growing steadily since the financial crisis of 2008. The current unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, the lowest it has been since 1969. Under President Obama and now President Trump the U.S. has its second longest economic expansion in its history. This should benefit Trump’s re-election in 2020. However economists are now raising the prospect that a recession could hit in the same year.

Trump’s re-election prospects in battleground states will be dimmer if certain sectors of the economy are hit by the new tariffs, including loss of jobs and shrinking disposable income.

Other economic factors, including Trump’s ongoing and future trade wars and their effect on the health of the U.S. economy, could also have an impact. Trump’s re-election prospects in battleground states will be dimmer if certain sectors of the economy are hit by the new tariffs, including loss of jobs and shrinking disposable income. Of course, the state of the economy alone will not determine the election, but a strained economy, rising unemployment, and wage stagnation could spell trouble for the incumbent and his political party.   

The second  powerful unknown in the next general election is the outcome of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

There is no deadline for the end of the investigation, and the parade of indictments of high level Trump associates may continue for an extended period. Will this investigation implicate President Trump directly, including disclosure of evidence of collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice? There is speculation that after the midterms that Trump will fire Department of Justice Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with someone who could quash the Mueller investigation. Removing Mueller could set off a political firestorm and launch impeachment proceedings in Congress, especially if Democrats regain control of the House in a few weeks.

Third, another as-yet unknown that will shape the general election is who will lead democrats in 2020. As bad as Trump’s disapproval rating may be, the Democratic field is wide open. Nominating the wrong candidate to take on Trump could leave democrats again outside the White House looking in. The democratic field is crowded and there are a lot of potentials jostling for the inside lane.

Although it is far too early to crown a democratic nominee, a mid-October CNN poll of likely Democratic voters put former Vice President Joe Biden at 33 percent with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at 13 percent. However there were 14 other candidates bunched up between less than 1 and 9 percent. For democratic contenders, early polling does not guarantee a party nomination. Democrats will need to sort out a messy nominating process that is likely once again to pit the more centrist wing of party against the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren left.  

The bigger wild card: Will there be another Republican, or more, to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination? A serious opponent is unlikely right now based on Trump’s control of the Republican base and without a clear mathematical path to beat him for the GOP nomination. In addition, history suggests that Republican front runners in early Republican presidential polls typically end up as the Republican nominee. Trump also has an enormous financial advantage over Republican and Democrat contenders having already raised over a $100 million for his re-election campaign.

There are wildcards that could upset the apple cart. If Trump’s polling numbers among Republican voters slides significantly (though unlikely) or the Mueller investigation leads to serious charges against Trump or congressional action such as impeachment, there will be Republicans waiting in the wings, including Vice President Mike Pence, Former Ohio Governor John Kasich, Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and Ted Cruz.      

There is a long time between U.S. midterm elections and November 3, 2020, and too many unknown factors. These could include major Russian interference in the midterms and U.S. media discourse and entry of viable third-party candidate into the general election. Also it is not foreseeable how split control of Congress after the midterms (if the Democrats do win a majority in the House of Representatives) would advantage or disadvantage Trump and presidential candidates from both parties. For 2020, the only certainty is that we are headed into choppier waters as Donald Trump, and other Republican and Democratic contenders, wait for the starter pistol to launch what is likely to be the most divisive election cycle in modern U.S. history.

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