Old conventional wisdom: it can’t happen — Donald Trump cannot be denied the Republican renomination in 2020. New conventional wisdom: Maybe it can.
Even a month ago, it seemed implausible Donald Trump might be challenged for the 2020 GOP nomination. Troubles he certainly had. But presidents seeking a second term are almost never denied renomination and only rarely challenged. Moreover, his “base,” the voters who supported him in 2016, is largely intact if becoming a little wobbly.
But that was before the toxic government shutdown affecting 800,000 federal workers, along with millions of Americans that want to continue to fly safely, buy food confidently and expect to receive their tax refunds promptly. The shutdown has done nothing to expand Trump’s base or improve his anemic job performance (41 percent, RCP average).
Until now, the issue of renominating Trump constituted a Hobson’s choice for the GOP, which is to say, no choice. They could nominate him and possibly lose, or deny him renomination and almost surely lose — punished by his fiercely loyal “base,” abandoning the GOP if Trump is denied.
Recently, however, many Republicans privately and publicly are asking if there might not be a third option: Can they dump Trump and still win in 2020? But is dumping Trump a high-risk strategy or is it a no brainer? As so much in presidential politics, history offers some tantalizing clues.
Not every elected incumbent runs for a second term. Six have demurred, including James Polk, James Buchanan and Rutherford Hayes, as well as Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and L.B. Johnson, the latter three having filled a partial term of their predecessor as well as getting elected to a single term of their own. It is possible that Trump, confronting a tsunami of legal and political challenges, might decide to declare victory and go home.
But if he does run, could he be denied renomination? Only five incumbent presidents have been denied renomination by their party, all in the 19th century (Franklin Pierce, Milliard Fillmore, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur). But only one of the five, Pierce, was an elected president. The other four gained the presidency only after the death of the previous incumbent.
Moreover, no incumbent president has been denied renomination for more than 130 years.
Simply being renominated, however, does not ensure victory. Since 1900, (arguably, the beginning of modern times) 19 presidents have been renominated and sought a second term. But only 14 were victorious while another five (25 percent) lost their quest. Moreover, there is a solid pattern to those losses that helps explain why challenged incumbents lose.
Of the five losing incumbents (George H. W. Bush (1992), Jimmy Carter (1980), Gerald Ford (1976), Herbert Hoover (1932), and William Howard Taft (1912), all but Hoover had significant party primary challenges. The principal is that incumbent presidents who are “primaried,” confronting a serious nomination challenge ultimately lose the general election. Contested primaries weaken the incumbent president with the general electorate, while often exposing deep fissures in the incumbent party that do not heal quickly.
Pat Buchanan running against President George H. W. Bush in 1992, illustrates incisively the threat challengers present to incumbents. Buchanan, despite some strong early showings, did not win a single primary. Yet, his contest with Bush left the incumbent stunned and stumbling into the general election, which he lost.
The calamitous power of contested primaries in the incumbent party has also caused presidents to decline to run or drop out of the race. This happened in 1968, when Democratic challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy‘s narrow loss in the New Hampshire primary persuaded Lyndon Johnson to jettison his candidacy. Earlier in 1952, Democratic challenger Sen. Estes Kefauver’s win in New Hampshire convinced President Harry Truman to retire.
This historical survey suggests that the more dire threat to Trump is not denial of renomination but a serious primary challenge within the GOP. But where would that come from. Certainly, the list of prominent Republican Trump critics is large and growing, including senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sass, plus several governors, notably former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Maryland’s newly elected Gov. Larry Hogan.
But these mostly “establishment” figures are unlikely to gain much traction with Trump’s 2016 loyal constituency. A much more serious threat would come from someone with at least one foot in the Trump camp, acceptable to Trump voters, but Trump without the drama. In all, Trump’s policies without the tweets, the controversial style and the chaos.
That would be someone that has embraced Trump’s ideas rather than Trump — and with the bona fides to plausibly run for president? Currently, it’s not a long list.
But prominent on it would be former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, former U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, recently retired senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. All of these in various degrees could claim the Trump mantle, free of the accumulating millstones increasingly weighting him down.
Clearly a primary challenge looms as the biggest obstacle Trump could face in a quest for a second term. The GOP will not deny him renomination, but a challenger might deny him the presidency. For now, a challenger looms as Trump’s biggest nightmare, and his opponent’s fondest dream.