Analyzing a 2020 Republican Primary, Part 3

Last time, we looked at what a 2020 Republican challenger to Donald Trump should look like in order to experience the best chance of success.  Today, I’m going to take a quick rundown of what a challenger would look like who would have the incentives to run in this race.  There may be some potential candidates who meet all the criteria I went over in Part 1 who may nonetheless pass because the Individual Incentives of running don’t make sense for the candidate.  Running for President is a grueling, often thankless task.  For voters who would prefer an alternative to President Trump to get a chance to vote for such a candidate, it’s important to consider who has the incentives to take on this task.  This is a topic I’m sure I will revisit frequently over the next year, so feel free to chime in if you think of any I missed.

Briefly though, I’m going to revisit the “success” definition I touched on last time.  On the broader level of analysis, there are really two ways one can “succeed” in a challenge to Trump: Outright winning the nomination, or performing competitively enough to preserve a value system apart from Trump for the party post-Trump (much like Reagan did running against Ford in 1976).  On the individual level, though, there are a number of other definitions of success that may not have anything to do with electoral success.  For example, a candidate may run in order to try and push a particular issue or issue-set into the conversation (Example: Ron Paul 2008 and 2012).  More perversely, a candidate may run in order to generate attention that can monetized as a book deal, a TV contract, or through some other means.  Finally, there are some candidacies that are just completely inexplicable (Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, etc).  All of these are individual definitions of success that often directly contradict with the broader voter group’s definition of success.  Here are some of the incentives, though, that a potential Trump challenger who would want to take on this significant task might have that doesn’t impede the Trump-skeptical’s electorate desire for a candidate who can win/compete with Trump:

  1. The potential challenger wants to be President.

This may sound obvious, but it’s worth considering.  In our current environment, if you become President, a significant number of people will dedicate themselves to tearing you and your family, friends, and colleagues down every possible opportunity.  Your lifestyle will change entirely, and privacy will basically be non-existent.  You will be tasked with making some of the most consequential decisions of any person on Earth.  Many good people have passed on running for office, including the Presidency, for some combination of these and more reasons.  Even if a candidate would be good for the job, he or she has to decide there is a significant desire to take on the job.

  1. The potential challenger with incentive to run would not benefit from waiting until a different election cycle.

There are a number of good Republicans who have interest in being President someday.  For many of them, running in 2020 against a sitting Republican president carries significant risk that, if they lost, may very well impede those chances.  For all his faults, there are a number of Republicans who would not support anyone who primaried Trump if they lost and ran again in, say, 2024.  If you’re, for example, Nicki Haley, would you rather run in 2020 and alienate a large number of Trump’s core supporters, or would you rather wait until 2024 or 2028 and run as a candidate who still has the potential of appealing to all factions of the Republican Party?  That exact same calculation applies to Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Tom Cotton, and a number of other Republicans with national ambitions.  That said, there will be some candidate who will have a better chance of success by running against Trump one-on-one in 2020 than they will in a crowded field of Republicans in 2024 or 2028.  They might be a hair to the middle of the GOP base, or they may just not stand out in a crowded race like happened to many candidates in 2016. Those candidates are the ones to keep an eye on.

  1. The potential challenger has at least somewhat serious concerns about Trump.

Because of the two reasons above and more, an individual who doesn’t have a significant problem with the President isn’t going to run.  I’ll use Ben Carson as an example here: He checks some of the boxes you would want to see in a Trump challenger, he’s ran for President before, and he would probably have a hard time standing out in another GOP primary that looked like 2016.  That said, he seems to have no serious issues with the President.  Not every potential challenger may have been as vocal about their issues with the President to this point as John Kasich, Jeff Flake, or someone else, but they at least need to have a “fire in their belly” to give their candidacy a sense of purpose.  If a candidate felt particularly strongly about this point, and viewed their candidacy as a “calling” or public service, it might be enough to override any concerns the candidate had about ruining any future election prospects.

  1. The potential challenger doesn’t have a reelection to worry about.

Any candidate who ran against Trump who would stand for reelection if they lost would instantly have a target on their back in a primary.  Look no further than what happened to Jeff Flake in Arizona (though to be fair, he wasn’t particularly popular before Trump).  Let’s say you’re Tim Scott, and you actually have some issues with the President, national ambitions, and a sterling profile among many different parts of the Party.  If you run against President Trump and lose, and then immediately stand for reelection in South Carolina in 2022, you all of a sudden have created a difficult race for yourself.  On the other hand, if you’re Larry Hogan, you’re term-limited as Governor, have limited prospects in Maryland, and may not have another step up on the political ladder (aside from Vice President or Cabinet Member).  That is a large reason why Hogan has expressed so much interest recently in the idea of a potential Primary.

Analyzing a 2020 Republican Primary, Part 2

Last time, I looked at the lay of the land concerning the possibility of a 2020 Republican primary.  The idea has started to pick up a lot of traction in the media.  It’s not without merit, as polling is starting to show that even before an actual campaign, a strong number of Republicans are open to the idea of a challenger.

One of the most important questions to start with in assessing this topic is “What qualities/traits is the ideal challenger going to have in order to have the best chance of success?”  While the ultimate success would be defeating Trump, that may or may not be possible depending on the environment, so you can also reasonably say that winning some primaries and taking a significant proportion of the votes in order to lay a marker for what the National GOP should be post-2020 would be a success (See: Reagan ’76).  There are a number of different ideas I could mention here, and a candidate may not need to meet all these characteristics to succeed by either definition.  Nonetheless, here are 4 key ideas to consider in what a Republican challenger to Trump should look like to have the best chance of success:

  1. The successful challenger should come from (or at least run from) the Right, not the Center

Like it or not, Republican Primary voters are not looking for John Kasich.  They want someone who will govern as a Conservative.  Tim Miller, who worked for Jeb Bush in 2016, makes this point on a recent Bulwark podcast, saying that, for example, a “Where is the Wall” type approach is probably going to be what has the best chance of gaining traction.  You could supplement this with a wide variety of issue points, from “Why is Planned Parenthood still funded” to “Why do we still have Obamacare” to “Why is the deficit ballooning” to “Why do we have an administration full of war hawks arguing we need to go into Venezuela after Trump said he wouldn’t get us into conflicts”.  Depending on how the candidate and his or her team wants to run, there is lots of material to attack Trump from the Right with that doesn’t even require going full Ted Cruz/Tea Party to do it, much less Stephen Miller/Ann Coulter.  You can’t abandon all Conservative orthodoxy either though, like John Kasich.  This ties very closely to point 2, which is ….

  1. The successful challenger appeals to your 2016 Rubio/Cruz/Carson voters

A lot of people forget Donald Trump won the 2016 nomination with a plurality of the votes ( ~ 45%).  If a candidate can unite the coalition of non-Trump voters from 2016, and then maybe activate some number of new voters who oppose Trump, the math works.  We can talk about what the ideal combination looks like (Rubio’s Charisma and Optimism, Cruz’s animosity to DC and appeal to Evangelicals, Carson’s background and outsider status, etc.), but a successful campaign needs to start with the question “How do I hold together Trump-skeptical Republicans?” and go from there.

  1. The successful challenger should be from outside DC (Businessman, Governor, etc) or should have a record in DC of standing up for Conservative values and against “the Swamp”.

The overall distaste for “The Establishment” or “The Swamp” by your typical Republican Primary voter has not changed since 2016.  That said, there is still a base of people who aren’t happy with DC but who aren’t happy with Trump either because of his character and haphazard approach to governing, or because they feel he has sold out his base and become “The Establishment.”  The successful Candidate is going to be able to appeal to these voters by railing against corruption in DC.  The very savvy campaign will be able to show why Trump is “The Swamp” due to all his self-dealing with the Trump Organization, Trump Hotel, etc.  The average voter may not care about Roger Stone and Russia, but they may be made to care about Trump telling them he was going to drain the swamp, and then getting rich off it himself.

  1. The successful challenger will be able to fundraise very successfully.

Going up against a prepared Trump-RNC apparatus is not going to be a task for the faint of heart.  Running a serious challenge to any serious incumbent is a difficult manner.  A very savvy campaign may be able to run an effective challenge in a cost-effective manner.  In a 24/7 news environment, doing more Earned Media as opposed to massive TV ad buys should be doable, as long as the dollars saved are going to building field staff, top-notch digital, competent data operations, etc.  That said, it’s a Presidential campaign, and a top-notch operation will require serious dollars.  There’s multiple ways you can do this.  Maybe the candidate is charismatic and a good debater, so that there may be room for a strong small-dollar donor apparatus.  If the candidate is well-connected, or perhaps comes from a business background, you could possibly run a more Super PAC driven campaign.  Regardless, though, it’s going to take someone who is serious about fundraising one way or another to build the groundwork to launch a serious challenge against an incumbent.


Call this 4b or 5, but I’m going to throw out one more quality that may not be essential, but could be helpful.  Name ID would help a candidate get a fast start out of the gate and have instant credibility.  I put it as non-essential because most Republicans with some type of notable experience will immediately receive significant earned media and exposure.