The 2020 election will be unprecedented, no matter what. Either President Donald Trump’s victory will shatter expectations and academic theories, or his defeat will.
If Trump wins in 2020, he will be the first and only impeached president to win reelection. Barring a major change in national polls, he will also be the first president to be elected twice without once winning the popular vote.
And if he loses? It would mark “the greatest presidential fumble of economic and market tailwinds in modern history,” according to Michael Cembalest of J.P. Morgan.
A traditional formula for predicting modern presidential elections goes like this: The national economy determines the national vote. Strong economies have historically favored the incumbent candidate or party. Weak economies, or even brief dips, have helped the challenger.
Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, as economic growth fell during a period of brutal inflation.
Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984, after the economy bounced back.
George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, tagged into the Oval Office in 1988, as the recovery continued.
Bill Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, following a brief downturn. He was reelected in 1996, during the same long recovery that also narrowly delivered Al Gore the popular vote in 2000.
George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 during a recovery.
Barack Obama defeated the Republicans in 2008, during the Great Recession, and he won reelection, in 2012, during the subsequent recovery.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, as the economy was still expanding. (Yes, she and Gore lost their elections; more on that in a moment.)
As for 2020, unemployment is at its lowest point in more than 60 years. The S&P 500 has tripled in the past decade. Wage growth, while still somewhat disappointing, is rising fastest for full-time low-income workers. In a vacuum, this would augur a reelection landslide for the sitting president. According to Cembalest’s index of economic strength—combining data on unemployment levels, home prices, per capita GDP, stock-market growth, and inflation—“Trump as an incumbent benefits from the strongest tailwinds” since 1896. (Bill Clinton’s reelection year of 1996 comes close, but unemployment and inflation were higher, and home values and the stock market were only on the cusp of their late-’90s boom.)
But Trump isn’t the only force of unprecedented-ness. If he loses to the current front-runner, Joe Biden will violate another soft law of American politics: the Rule of 14.
As Jonathan Rauch wrote in The Atlantic: “No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.” Zero political experience is just fine with Americans. But too much is not. In the past century, voters have subjected their candidates to a freshness test. And 14 years of political experience seems to be a kind of expiration date. Most impressive, the Rule of 14 predicted the narrow defeats of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, both of whom lost elections 15 years and 10 months after their first days in the United States Senate.
Biden, who leads almost every national poll, served as the senator from Delaware for 36 years, from 1973 until 2009, when he left his seat for the vice presidency. His 44 years of consecutive public service in Washington constitute one of the longest national tenures of any politician in American history. If Biden defeats Trump, the Rule of 14 won’t just get an asterisk; it will get a sledgehammer.
Any of the other three top Democratic candidates would also represent historic firsts. If Trump loses, it is all but certain that we will elect either the oldest president ever or the youngest. Bernie Sanders (78), Biden (77), and Elizabeth Warren (70) would all be older on their first day in office than the current record-holder in the oldest-president-ever category, Donald Trump. At 70 years and 220 days old on his first inauguration day, Trump was the oldest president to be elected to a first term, although Reagan in his second term was the oldest sitting president. Pete Buttigieg, 37, would be younger on day one than either Teddy Roosevelt—who, at 42, became the youngest president, after William McKinley died—or John F. Kennedy, who, at 43, became our youngest president-elect.
It’s always possible to find some narrow vertical in which a new president qualifies as a “first.” But gender, sexuality, and religion are all significant demographic markers. Warren would be the first female president, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay president, and Sanders would be the first Jewish president.
What does this all mean? Over the next 11 months, you will likely hear innumerable fables that purport to explain or predict the 2020 election. As you struggle to distinguish the smart-sounding ideas from the junk, just remember two things. First, the United States has had exactly 58 presidential elections in its history, and that’s a pathetically small sample size from which to construct a theory of social physics. Second, even if you believe these theories are as true as gravity, it is a mathematical certainty that some of them won’t apply in 2020. We are hurtling headlong into a gravity-free world, like innocent babes grasping with our tiny fingers for meaning in a cold and ungraspably meaningless universe. Happy New Year.