Donald Trump’s first term as president has been anything but smooth. His opposition was rallying for impeachment before he was even inaugurated. Trump took office in 2017 with a 45.5% approval rating—the lowest recorded approval of any first-term president following inauguration—and now has a 39.9% approval, two years later. With 22 months left before the next general election, this number is not set in stone. However, it will be difficult Trump to raise this number, given that he has already appointed two conservative Supreme Court justices and delivered on several other central campaign promises to his target voters.
Trump has nothing to gain from being moderate in his policy at this point in his presidency. For Trump to have a good chance of being reelected, he would likely need to sway his Republican opposition and inspire a record turnout among his party’s voters. This begs the question: could another Republican, whose public image was not nearly as damaged and who could have a greater appeal to both moderate and traditional conservatives, be a stronger presidential candidate in 2020?
Trump is by no means a popular president, but the possibility of a Republican challenger is quite complex. A recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans would like to see Trump challenged for the Republican nomination. However, no Republicans have announced their plan to run against Trump in a primary.
It may seem as though there would be little risk for a Republican running against Trump, given the president’s unpopularity, even within his party. However, such a decision could be disastrous for one’s political career. There are four potential scenarios for a Republican challenger. In the first scenario, the challenger defeats Trump and continues to win the general election, becoming the president. This is the best possible outcome and the only one in which the challenger leaves the election with relatively no damage. In the second-best scenario, the challenger loses to Trump, who later wins reelection. The challenger could set himself up for future success in the following presidential election. However, in this situation, the challenger could appear to be a weak candidate in the future which is important when considering that candidates are usually dependent on donors who evaluate the plausibility of their success.
In the third scenario, the challenger defeats Trump but is beaten by the Democratic challenger, perhaps due to a change in public image resulting from the primary race. The challenger would be blamed for the establishment of a Democratic president and members of the Republican party would ponder if Trump would have won in the general election. In the final scenario, the challenger loses to Trump in the primary, and Trump later loses the general election. The challenger proves he is not a strong candidate in the future which is important when considering that candidates are usually dependent on donors.
These scenarios demonstrate why Republicans should be less inclined to challenge the president in 2020, as there is a strong chance that it could damage their political careers and public images. Anti-Trump conservative Andy Smarick disagrees with this notion and claims that the risk of challenging the president is being overestimated. Smarick doubts that Republican challengers would face significant backlash if the president were to lose reelection following a primary challenge, and instead believes that it would establish the challenger for future presidential elections. Despite the fears of some Republican politicians, there are several potentially strong challengers who have not ruled out the possibility of running for president in 2020. Next week, I will review these challengers and evaluate their strengths. The bottom line is that—whether Trump will be challenged by a Republican or not—the political stage for the 2020 elections is already emerging, and it will likely be one of great competition and historical significance.