The 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination

While it’s difficult to write a post about politics without getting too political, I’m going to do my best to remain relatively objective on this one. If you follow my Twitter account, you probably know I don’t think too much of our current President, and I’ll just leave it at that for now. There’s much talk of impeachment, but no matter what happens – a Republican incumbent President will be running for (re?)-election in 2020.

What concerns me, and is the main subject of this piece, is who will run against said incumbent. Almost certainly there will be some third party nominees, but absent a significant political shift in the next 24 months, the main challenger will most likely come from the Democratic party. So let’s just stipulate for now: the Democrats will need to produce the candidate who will have a chance of defeating the 45th President of the United States.

One thing I’m virtually certain of: the idea(s) of the party running Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden and/or Bernie Sanders again in 2020 is/are ludicrous. All three will be far too old at that point, for starters, and all three have significant baggage. Clinton will have lost two times out, and while she may have won the popular vote, she is clearly a bad candidate. In 2008, she was the shoe-in nominee, and lost to a freshman senator who had just four years previously been a state senator, and had no executive experience to speak of. In 2016, she lost to someone with literally the worst resume in the history of the Presidency. Biden would represent a return to the old guard, which may seem attractive in 3.5 years, but at 78, he’d be the oldest President by a decade. Ditto Sanders.

Now, with all that out of the way, let’s launch in. The Democratic Party has done a piss-poor job of winning elections over the last 10 years. Not only has it lost the White House in 2016 and failed to even sniff taking back either house of Congress, but the Republicans also control 32 state legislatures and 33 Governor’s Houses across the United States. This is much more important than people may realize. The aforementioned freshman senator who defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 nomination was, of course, former President Barack Obama – and he came out of the Illinois State Senate. The previous four out of five Presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, were state governors.

More often than not, it seems, we choose our Presidents out of the state houses and governor’s mansions, rather than straight out of the United States Congress. In fact, if you look at the resumes of all the previous 45 Presidents, only four were elected directly out of Congress (three from the Senate and one from the House of Representatives). Of the three sitting senators who moved down Pennsylvania Avenue, two were freshman senators (meaning, in their first term) – the aforementioned Obama and Warren G. Harding. The third, John F. Kennedy, was just two years into his second term, and would have been a significant contender in the 1956 election if not for the ever-popular Dwight Eisenhower running for re-election on the opposite side of the ticket.

These sitting senators all won the White House in the 20th century, which is pretty damned interesting for a reason I never knew myself – US Senators were not directly elected by the people of their states until the 17th Amendment went into effect in 1913. Before that, each state’s pair of senators were chosen directly by the state’s legislature, which, in effect, gave much more power to the states than there was today.

The reason I bring this up is that literally no sitting senator was elected to the White House before 1920. (Well, Ohio Congressman James Garfield was in 1880, but he actually had just been named to the senate and never actually took office). The reason why I point this out as being interesting is that, when paired with the idea that no presidential candidates ever personally campaigned for the job before William McKinley in 1896 AND that people didn’t start voting in party primaries until the early 20th century, it kind of operates as a defining point between two different eras of presidential campaigning. Therefore, moving forward, I’ll be largely working in the “modern” era, starting with Harding in 1920.

Also, to be fair, as we consider those who have previously held the office, we’re only going to be looking at the characteristics of those who were initially elected President, rather, didn’t assume office through a death or (in the case of Gerald Ford) a resignation, since whoever runs for the Democrats in 2020 will not, obviously, be running as an incumbent.

For all of the lawyer jokes in this country, the most common trait of presidents is that most are attorneys by trade. In fact, 26 of the 45 people to win the job hold juris doctors. After that, it’s kind of all over the map. Four of 45 were vice presidents of the presidents who preceded them, who ran after their predecessor decided to leave office. Four were Generals. 12 didn’t hold any sort of governmental position until being drafted for president. In fact, one was a retired farmer.

One guy did one term in Congress, then lost his bid for reelection. He also lost a senate race, and wasn’t anyone’s first choice for the Republican nomination for President in 1860. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

But I digress. Out of 45 Presidents, only 14 won election directly from posts in the Federal Government – 4 VPs, 3 Senators, 1 Congressman, 5 from the Cabinet (all but one in the 19th century) and one Ambassador. The rest were elsewhere at the time of their nomination. In the modern era, we have only 1 VP, 3 Senators and 1 Cabinet Member, stacked up against 1 General, 3 Governors and 3 who didn’t hold elected office immediately prior to their nomination.

Taking a look at those three who didn’t hold office right before their nomination: Richard Nixon was a former vice president, senator and congressman. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were former governors.

The election of 2016 aside, we generally favor people with experience. But that experience is better from a position of an executive – such as a governor or a general. But, contradictory to all of that, we like our Presidential candidates to have some previous experience in Washington. Of those who won elections, 11 had experience in Congress, 9 in the Senate, 4 in the Cabinet, and some were ambassadors/ministers. But ideally they are a sitting governor, or even more so, aren’t in office at all while they’re seeking the nomination.

So what does that tell us? In an unscientific analysis of the data, I see a good Presidential candidate as having these qualities: A current or recent governor, or perhaps a former senator, but they should have been out of office for a while. They should have had position in Washington DC at some point – congressman or cabinet official if not a senator – and should hold a JD. The average president has been around 55, so I’m setting a cutoff of 70 at the time of the election. Finally, despite the success of that Lincoln guy, I’m going to eliminate those who were ultimately voted out of office by their home state.

Checking out the Democratic party, the one that jumps out immediately is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He was in Clinton’s cabinet, he was the Attorney General of New York, and has been governor since 2011. Plenty of executive experience, plenty of Washington experience, but can still claim to be an outsider. Cuomo is also from New York, which has has two presidents elected since 1920, the third most of any state in the union. He also seems to be setting himself up to run – perhaps looking at past history, the best thing he could do is not run for re-election in 2018, and start the primary season without an elected position.

Of the former Democratic senators out there, two are possibilities: Ken Salazar and Evan Bayh. Salazar was the Attorney General for Colorado, won election to the senate, which he left in the first term to join Obama’s cabinet. He also was slated to head Clinton’s transition team in 2016 if she had won. Bayh has previous executive experience, winning two terms as the governor of Indiana, followed by two terms in the senate.

There’s a number of freshman democratic senators – remember that JFK is the only non-freshman sitting senator to ever win the election. There’s two that jump to mind: Chris Van Hollen and Kamala Harris. Van Hollen was in congress from 2003 until just this year, winning seven terms, before grabbing Maryland’s senate seat. He’s long been a respected member of the Democratic party, chairing the DCCC for four years, and Democratic politics is nothing other than inside baseball. Harris has come up out of nowhere in the last few years – she spent six years as the District Attorney of San Francisco, then Attorney General for the state of California. She is the third woman of color, the first Indian American, and the first biracial woman ever elected to serve in the United States Senate.

Harris could, given her lack of experience, be great in the two-spot for any of the above. A Cuomo-Harris ticket looks particularly formidable – executive experience with a long-standing connection to the Democratic party at the top, with a fresh faced up-and-comer for VP. While New York and California on the same ticket might not add any new electoral votes, it should provide huge for potential donors once the rubber hits the road in the general.

Ultimately, time will tell who will get the Democratic nomination in 2020. But while the party doesn’t seem to want to push its future stars and continue to push retreads, if you have an interest in Democratic politics, maybe start considering some of these potential future stars now.