Trump, Carter and Democrats' 2020 Prospects

Two unlikely candidates could provide a blueprint for the party's presidential strategy. Plus, Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.


Photographer: Gene Forte/Consolidated News/Getty Images

Could it be time for another Jimmy Carter? MSNBC's Steve Kornacki tells the improbable story of how an obscure Georgia governor won the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, and suggests that one of the elements -- a very large candidate field with no obvious heavyweight -- will also be in place for Democrats in 2020.

Carter was easily the least likely presidential nominee ever until Donald Trump surprised everyone in 2016, and that sort of thing isn't supposed to happen now. At least, not according to those of us who believe that the parties have determined presidential nominations ever since Carter's shocker. 

We don't really know right now whether Trump's nomination was a freak exception to the normal rules; a signal that a formerly stable system was no longer in effect; or, perhaps, a sign that those of us who had identified these patterns had been wrong all along. 

What we had said was that the Carter nomination (and the George McGovern nomination in 1972) was a product of a new nomination system that the parties had yet to figure out. That allowed for seemingly random outcomes, with the news media having a larger voice in nominations than usual and superior campaign strategies that became unusually valuable. Once the parties got the hang of things, however, they regained control, and once again were able to winnow candidates they found unacceptable.

Post-Trump, we have to question whether party actors really were responsible for eliminating those candidates who failed basic party vetting -- folks such as Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, Howard Dean in 2004, or Newt Gingrich in 2012 -- or if they lost for other reasons. Did the process change in 2016? If so, can the parties adjust? Was it just the Republicans? 

The first test of all of this will be very simple: How many of the 20 or more Democrats who are doing candidate-like things will still be around when it comes time to do formal candidate announcements? Kornacki is correct that the current field is unusually large, but if normal patterns hold, several of them won't still be running in 2020. There's no specific test for this, but let's say that if more than a dozen Democrats survive to contest the Iowa caucuses, it would be evidence that something's gone wrong. 

The other question is: Even if Democratic party actors are still in control, what will they make of Trump's presidency? One option is they could see it as evidence they had used too narrow a screen for presidential candidates, and they could even seek out those without traditional qualifications. The other option, which is somewhat more likely, is that they'll be especially wary of untested aspirants; instead of treating Trump as a sign that anything goes, they'll treat him as solid evidence that an unconventional candidate would be a huge risk. 

We're going to learn a lot over the next six months or so, and certainly by this time next year. My best guess is that the Democratic nomination process is going to wind up much more like 1988 or 2004 than 1976, and they'll wind up with a very conventional candidate who would make a safe, adequate president if 2020 turns out to be a Democratic year. 

1. Henry Farrell at the Monkey Cage on what the Russians were up to in 2016. Just one caveat: "Minimal effects" does not mean "zero effects," at least definitively. The evidence certainly suggests any persuasion from Russian efforts was small, but as it turned out, the election was extremely close, so almost anything could have been important to the outcome. I'd also add that persuasion is easier in primary elections, for whatever that's worth. That said: The importance of Russian actions doesn't depend on whether they affected outcomes. 

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Jason Lyall and Rebecca Wolfe on what works in Afghanistan.

3. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton

4. Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin Vaughn have the latest presidential ratings from political scientists. Disclosure: I was one of the respondents. We're overrating George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. 

5. Julia Azari on the presidency and moral leadership.

6. The Lawfare gang on the latest indictments from Robert Mueller.

7. My Bloomberg View colleague Tobin Harshaw speaks with Eugene Rumer about Vladimir Putin's plans.

8. And Alec MacGillis on pessimism and gun safety.

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.