The dismay expressed by many Republicans about President Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville last weekend will probably further increase the already existing speculation about whether Trump will be the Republican nominee again in 2020. Could he get a serious challenge? Could he decide not to run? Be impeached? Resign?
It’s hard to quantify the chances that Trump will not seek another term, though he’s quite unpopular. He does not seem to enjoy the job. He is overweight and will be 74 in 2020. Who knows where the Russia investigation will lead, but it does raise a plausible specter of impeachment or resignation. In some polls, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has fallen into the 70s — roughly the level of Gerald Ford’s same-party support when Ronald Reagan announced his challenge in late 1975. Republican elected officials seem fed up with Trump’s incompetence and name-calling. There are also signs that Mike Pence is building a political operation with 2020 in mind.
A challenge to Trump would not have to be successful to matter. Reagan’s challenge to Ford lasted until his party’s convention, as did Edward Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter. In both cases, the incumbent was seen as being weakened by the conflict within his party, although Ford and Carter were already in grave political trouble before they faced intraparty opposition. Even Pat Buchanan’s much less successful challenge to George H.W. Bush in 1992 at least embarrassed the president, and resulted in the celebrity commentator delivering a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention that is legendary for its incendiary content.
All three presidents had to spend precious time, money, and political capital courting supporters whom they should have been able to take for granted. Challenges can have even graver consequences — in 1968, challenges from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy actually helped push Lyndon Johnson into dropping his race for reelection.
So what sort of candidate could plausibly challenge Trump? Or could run should he decide to step down? Let’s look at the qualities that would make for a strong contender, and then examine how well some possible candidates exemplify them.
The qualities of a strong challenger
Ideology: If the challenges brought by Edward Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to sitting presidents are indicative, the strongest opponent to Trump is likely to come from the most ideological faction of the GOP. It’s less clear what happens if Trump voluntarily decides not to run and the GOP has a free-for-all, but having solid conservative credentials would help any candidate.
Stature/popularity: Kennedy and Reagan were also well-known figures who had been leading national politicians for a decade or more. Both had a certain “celebrity” factor — Reagan had been an actor, Kennedy was a member of America’s most prominent political family. But Reagan had also been the two-term governor of the most populous state in the union, had briefly run for president in 1968, and had, prior to Watergate, been mentioned as a leading Republican contender for 1976. Kennedy had been in the Senate for a decade and a half, and had been discussed as a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 1968, 1972, and 1976. A well-known, well-liked figure will be in a better position to defeat Trump.
Trumpism: Donald Trump is, of course, not a conservative ideologue. There has been talk of “Trumpism,” a new nationalist/populist/authoritarian synthesis. But so far, Trumpism has mostly amounted to taking a hard line on immigration. And on that issue, Trump has won the battle within the GOP. When a Jack Kemp protégé like Paul Ryan embraces the border wall, the Republican Party has become an immigration-restrictionist party. Any 2020 Republican contender will have to confront this reality.
Not NeverTrump: Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans are slumping, but most Republican primary voters or caucus activists will have supported him at some time. A “Sometimes-Trumper” who admits mixed feelings about the man in the White House would probably appeal more widely than a “NeverTrumper.” One possible exception: If Trump absolutely crashes and burns — he is impeached and convicted, he is prosecuted and jailed — his standing among Republicans would probably be so bad that a NeverTrumper could say, “I told you so.” But that’s a particularly extreme scenario.
Competence: Increasingly, Republican officeholders’ complaints about Trump seem less about ideology than about his total inability to do his job. And polls show that Americans have particularly harsh views of Trump’s temperament and management skills. This pattern could help a Republican who could pledge credibly to follow conservative ideology while being more competent in implementing it.
Age/vigor/charisma: During the 2016 nomination campaign, Trump used his media skills to mock his less charismatic opponents. Any Trump challenger would have to compete with his ability to garner attention. But Trump will be 74 in 2020, and already looks less vigorous than he did during the campaign. A younger, more dynamic candidate might benefit from the contrast.
Elite support: Donald Trump was able to win the GOP nomination without much support from Republican Party elites, but few would want to try to repeat his experience. And as multiple press accounts show, Trump can count on remarkably little loyalty from Republican insiders. (It’s notable that Republican senators rallied around Mitch McConnell when the president denounced him on Twitter.) A credible Trump challenger might see elite support that well outstrips anything Reagan or Kennedy received.
Affective partisanship: Trump may have had limited ties to the Republican Party, but he owed much of his appeal to the Republican base to his over-the-top attacks on Barack Obama and other Democrats. Whoever challenges Trump will have to match his emotional hostility to the other party.
Political experience: Trump might not have had any, but it is probably still helpful for a candidate to have some.
Electability: A candidate seen as a strong general election candidate will have an easier time picking up elite support, as well as other valuable resources. Electability might be especially important if Trump has badly tainted the image of the Republican Party.
Likelihood of running: You can’t win if you don’t run. Some candidates who would never challenge Trump might well enter a race that develops if he resigns or is impeached or decides not to run again.
Conservative media: Essentially a specialized segment of “elite support,” the conservative media has arguably been Trump’s base in the Republican Party. While few figures could match Trump’s appeal, any Republican candidate will need to use the conservative media successfully.
The establishment candidates
These candidates are most likely to unite the Republican Party. With conventional qualifications and views, they could serve as a relief for party insiders worn out by Trump. But they are also unlikely to challenge Trump, as opposed to running if he does not seek a second term.
Positives: Ideology, elite support, fundraising, not NeverTrump
Negatives: Likelihood of running, age/vigor/charisma, electability
If press accounts are to be believed, Mike Pence is already running for 2020, if only in the circumstance where Donald Trump decides not to run again. (If Trump resigns or is impeached, Pence would be an overwhelming favorite as a sitting president.) As vice president and a political veteran, Pence is well equipped to lock up the backing of Republican elites. His conservative credentials are sterling. He is already courting the support of the biggest Republican donors. His service as a loyal vice president means he’ll never be a NeverTrumper.
On the other hand, his ultraconservatism and ties to Trump would probably make him an unappealing general election candidate. Few would call him an exciting or warm figure. And while Pence seems to be preparing for a world in which Trump does not seek a second term, it seems unlikely that he would challenge his boss for the nomination. Should Trump really go down in flames, Pence is probably too close to him to avoid being scorched.
Positives: Ideology, competence, fundraising, age/vigor/charisma, elite support
Negatives: Trumpism, likelihood of running, stature/popularity
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has been one of the few outstanding figures of the Trump administration. For traditional Republican national security insiders, she has been a reassuring voice of hawkish internationalism in an administration that is often incoherent on foreign policy and sometimes flirts with exotic forms of ethnonationalism. This regard for Haley could well translate into endorsements from politicians and big checks from donors, should she decide to run. But she’s no Trumper: She endorsed Marco Rubio for president. Her removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol showed political skill but probably did not impress Trump’s core supporters. Nor is she particularly well-known to rank-and-file voters.
Ultimately, Haley seems unlikely to challenge Trump — it’s more probable that she eventually replaces Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. But should Trump step down, she would make an obvious vice presidential pick for Mike Pence.
Positives: Ideology, stature/popularity, fundraising, conservative media, elite support
Negatives: Likelihood of running, Trumpism, electability
Like Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan has undoubted conservative credentials. Unlike Cruz, he has excellent ties to Republican politicians all over the country. Most Republican voters know and like him (although his approval rating has sagged since Trump became president). His tax-cutting views fit very well with those of most Republican donors. It’s hard to see him challenging Trump, however, and even harder to see him competing with Mike Pence. Ryan has moved well to the right on immigration, but he’s also the sort of figure whom the most devoted Trumpers treat with suspicion. He’s quite unpopular with voters overall, and his years of advocating for entitlement cuts won’t play well with the general public.
Positives: Age/vigor/charisma, elite support, electability
Negatives: Not NeverTrump, Trumpism
Marco Rubio looks young enough to be Donald Trump’s son, which could make for an interesting contrast. The Republican establishment seems comfortable with him; for a brief time in 2016, he became the choice of party insiders, after Jeb Bush and others quit. While Rubio eventually accepted Trump as the nominee, he has never particularly warmed up to him, nor is he likely to have natural appeal to Trumpers.
The true believers
These figures have rock-solid conservative credentials and could plausibly attack Trump from the right.
Positives: Ideology, stature/popularity, fundraising, affective partisanship
Negatives: Electability, elite support
As the runner-up to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, Cruz is a logical figure to potentially challenge the president. No one is going to out-conservative him, and his 2016 campaign has given him the appropriate stature among Republican voters. His ideological purism fits the worldview of many large Republican donors. On the other hand, Cruz is famously disliked by other politicians, whatever their background. The general public probably does not know him as well as does the Republican base, but his abrasive personality and strident conservatism do not make him a particularly attractive general election candidate.
He has not been mentioned lately as a potential 2020 candidate, perhaps because he has a race for reelection next year, perhaps because his fellow Republicans do not want to encourage him. Another Texan, Gov. Greg Abbott, has Cruz’s conservative credentials but not his national profile — or his enemies.
Positives: Ideology, Trumpism, not NeverTrump, competence, conservative media
Tom Cotton has a similar profile to that of Ted Cruz: staunch conservatism, Ivy League pedigree, undoubted intellect. But more than Cruz, Cotton has positioned himself as a Trump loyalist. Most recently, he has co-sponsored a bill to significantly cut immigration levels. He’s also served as something of an intermediary between Trump and mainstream conservatism. He would seem an unlikely figure to challenge Trump, but should the president not seek another term, Cotton could well be in the mix. But people need to find out who he is first.
These figures have never warmed up to Trump and might well run against him even if they have little chance of defeating him.
Positives: Likelihood of running, elite support, electability, competence, political experience, stature/popularity
Negatives: Ideology, Trumpism, not NeverTrump, conservative media, age/vigor/charisma, affective partisanship
Ohio Gov. John Kasich acts as if he never stopped running against Trump. He seems already in the early stages of a 2020 campaign, no matter what Trump chooses to do. He is a nice fit for those Republicans most hostile to Trump, and his record in Ohio bodes well for his appeal in a general election. His three decades in public life (with a little time off in the business world) provide a reassuring contrast to Trump.
But his moderate reputation and NeverTrumper credentials could make him a tough sell to the Republican faithful. It’s easy to see Fox News or Breitbart or conservative talk radio ripping him apart. But should the worst-case scenarios for Trump come to fruition, Kasich would be in a good position to say, “I told you so.” Other NeverTrumpers like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse have better conservative credentials than Kasich, but are less known to both voters and activists.
Positives: Elite support, fundraising, competence, political experience
Negatives: Ideology, not NeverTrump, age/vigor/charisma, likelihood of running
Romney is especially popular among the sort of country-club-ish Republicans who most dislike Trump. That would ensure that should he run, he could count on strong fundraising, plus some support from Republican electeds. But he’s never been a darling of movement conservatives, and he was one of Trump’s harshest critics among Republican elder statesmen. He’ll be 73 in 2020, and it’s easier to imagine him providing behind-the-scenes help to a Trump challenger than being one himself. If Trump does not run in 2020, Romney would probably step aside for a younger generation.