As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
This means that rather than turning to our attention to who might win Iowa, which candidate is racking up the most endorsements, the latest great speech, gaffe or negative story about a candidate, we might be better off paying attention to a different set of issues. The question of whether or not the 2020 election is likely to be conducted freely, fairly and democratically is much more central to the future of our country than whether Kirsten Gillibrand or Corey Booker is in third place in Iowa or other such inside baseball campaign dynamics. The questions of which states are passing more restrictive voting laws, which of these laws are being upheld in the courts, why the federal government continues to do nothing to protect our elections from further Russian interference like what we saw in 2016, and the extent to which major media outlets traffic in lies and fear-mongeringare among the much extremely critical issues that too easily get overlooked as we all handicap the Democratic primary.
Although the midterm election is almost upon us, many pundits have already begun to look towards the 2020 election. Correspondingly, something of a cottage industry has developed around earnest warnings that Donald Trump is in a good position to get reelected in 2020. These warnings are better understood as conservative talking points, or pundits enjoying sparking debate, rather than rigorous political analysis. While it is extremely unlikely that 2020 will be a Democratic landslide, the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, will likely be in a much stronger position that these warnings indicate.