Democratic Presidential Winner Playbook and Notes for 2020 Democrats

It is (almost) presidential election season!  Ever since President Trump announced his reelection bid on the day he took office two years ago, he has shaped a political campaign machine that is like no other. As of today, the President has raised more than $100 million for his reelection bid. His reelection committee is said to be merging with the RNC, forming a stronger, more effective and unified political organization. It will make POTUS more formidable in the upcoming months.  The Democrats have also been preparing for 2020. So far, the party already has more than a dozen declared candidates, with only two candidates polling in the double digits. It is still too early to tell whether Trump can be defeated. But first, we should look at the past and consider what would help make a successful Democratic nominee in 2020.

The last three Democratic presidents all shared certain characteristics:  young, not well known, charismatic, and non-establishment. From Jimmy Carter, to Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama, they all ran in a troubling time with an appealing and memorable message.

When James Earl Carter announced his campaign in December 1974, he was hardly a national figure, having only been known as the former governor of Georgia. In fact, one year after the announcement, Carter was still one of the seven candidates who yielded less than 5 percent of support among the Democratic voters. Yet by November 1976, Carter had not only successfully branded himself as the best Washington outsider to fix Washington, but he had also managed to beat an incumbent president for the first time since FDR achieved this feat in 1932. At the age of 52, the former navy lieutenant and peanut farmer who projected integrity and honesty ran at a time when the country was under the cloud of the Watergate scandal and public distrust towards political establishment was at an all time high. Carter was the right person at the right time for the United States.

Sixteen years later, William Jefferson Clinton, then a 46-year-old governor from Arkansas, decided to run for the highest political office of the land. Only four months into his presidential run, his campaign was “blood in the water” and fell twenty points in the polls due to allegations of draft dodging and extramarital affairs. Yet in eight days’ time, Clinton went from town halls to shopping malls to connect with the American people. Ultimately, he ended in second place in the New Hampshire primary and declared himself the “comeback kid.” It was with brilliant tenacity, compassion, and personal charisma that Clinton was able to crunch the party nomination. Ultimately, the young governor declared victory in the general election with the help of an economic recession, the incumbent’s betrayal of the promise of no more new taxes, and perhaps a third party candidate named Ross Perot.

Obama’s 2008 campaign followed similar patterns. As the economy fell into one of the worst recessions in history and the outgoing administration dragged the country into two wars, people were again tired of the DC political establishment. Though a rising star in the party, then first-term senator Barack Obama was still largely unheard of nationwide when he announced his candidacy for president. He was able to use his charismatic speaking skills and adept campaign strategies to conduct an effective and deracialized campaign that called for “change” and “hope.” In less than two years’ time, he won the hearts of millions with his message, ideas, youth, and personal story. Initially falling 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, 47-year-old Barack Obama eventually became the first African American president in U.S. history.

Although there is no set formula for being a successful presidential candidate, it is interesting to observe the consistent pattern of the last three Democratic presidents. None of the major Democratic establishment nominees, including Walter Mondale in 1984, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, have ever won an election in recent history. It might be coincidence, but it also could be a historical inertia that is yet to be stopped.

If we are strictly following the historical pattern concluded above, then from the current list of declared and speculative candidates in the Democratic field, only Beto O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from Texas, and Pete Buttigieg, a city mayor from Indiana, seemingly have the potential to win. However, the time we live in today is unprecedented. We live in a highly digitized world with an exceedingly polarized political climate and an unconventional president whose administration has been tainted by countless scandals. These are factors that no presidential candidate has dealt with before.

That said, in 2020, one of the key factors of being a successful Democratic nominee is having a campaign message that resonates with American voters, not just with the party’s base. Noticeably, all of the last three Democratic presidents used the word “change” in the main slogan for their first campaign, often combined with a folksy or inspiring catchphrase or word (Carter’s “Not Just Peanuts,” Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid,” and Obama’s “Hope.”) On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign in 2016 was heavily criticized for its lack of an appealing slogan. Her messages often came off as self-centered (“I’m with Her”) and defensive (“Love trumps hate.”) It will be essential for the 2020 Democratic nominee to not only attract loyal Democrat voters, but also to transcend polarized issues like identity politics and go beyond merely attacking Trump and his base.

Another key factor in the 2020 election is the ongoing development of the Trump administration. With the U.S. unemployment rate at an at-time low, it will be difficult to beat the incumbent.  Nonetheless, the Muller Investigation and Trump’s recent hardship to deliver his central campaign promise of building the southern border wall are still unfolding issues that could boost the Democratic nominee’s chance to win the general election. In addition, the administration may be facing even more troubles: the Democratic House has already started more investigations on Trump.  The current White House might find itself remaining on the defensive side for the rest of the presidential term, giving the Democratic candidate more opportunities to appeal to voters by making the case for American integrity and prosperity, instead of simply being anti-Trump.

We are still in the very early stage of the 2020 election. Remember that both Clinton and Trump did not announce their campaigns until the spring of the year before the general election. Fasten your seatbelt-the race is yet to start.