Alberta Politics
Someone’s got to live in this place when “45” has moved on (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Guest Post by Olav Rokne: America’s Democrats need to saddle up a dark horse

Posted on January 04, 2019, 1:36 am
13 mins

Considering his scandal-ridden administration, a shaky economy, and his disagreeable public presence, it’s easy for progressives to assume that Tovarishch Trump will be a one-term president.

But here’s the bad news: There’s a very real chance that Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, will be re-elected.

Olav Rokne

For one thing, incumbency has an advantage. Four of the past five presidents served two full terms – and the exception, George H.W. Bush, was only defeated because his re-election was a three-way race.

For another, the base of Trump’s support has advantageous geographic distribution that provides him with a significant number of Electoral College votes that he can build from.

And while the 72-year-old president may be running the most shambolic administration in recent memory, his approval rating is comparable to where Bill Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s were at this point in their administrations.

For those who are keeping score, both Clinton and Reagan were re-elected handily.

Presidents who seek re-election rarely lose unless there’s a strong third-party candidate splitting the vote (Ross Perot in 1992, Teddy Roosevelt in 1912) or major economic turmoil (The Long Recession of the 1880s, The Great Depression, the Energy Crisis/Stagflation).

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (Photo: United States Senate).

Democrats should not count on these factors being in play for 2020.

It is with this in mind that members of the Democratic Party should approach the nomination of the party’s candidate for 2020.

This is not the moment to put forward a candidate who is the purest distillation of the party’s values. This is the time to fight and a time to win. That means arming yourself with the strongest weapons in your arsenal.

The party needs a candidate that can win in the general election.

This is likely to be one of the messiest and most bruising nomination races in American history – in no small part because it is unexpected. Right up until Nov. 8, 2016, it was assumed by most that 2020 would be Hillary Clinton’s re-election and that the Democrats would have no need for a nomination campaign.

Instead, we have no obvious front-runner, but a lot of old-guard candidates who think it’s their turn.

There’s former Vice-President Joseph Robinette Biden who would probably like one last go – an admirable, if undisciplined, politician who will have been in federal politics for 48 years by the time of the election.

Senator Bernie Sanders seems to be angling for a second run after his quixotic bid in 2016, but it would be hard to recapture the magic of his failed quest for the nomination, and he’s never managed to attract the votes of visible minorities.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo (Photo: Gina Raimondo Flickr Account).

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is likely to throw his hat into the ring, and of the old guard, he may be the best bet. In his 2018 election, he outperformed other Democrats in his home state by a fair margin, and that speaks to personal charisma.

Former Colorado Governor John Wright Hickenlooper Jr. looks like he’s angling for the top job, and could make a decent case as the ‘moderate’ choice. His state’s economy prospered under his watch, and he has a reputation for bipartisanship.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren launched her campaign a few days ago, and seems to be inheriting the support of the Clinton Machine. If she scores the nomination, Elizabeth Warren could be the best thing that’s happened to Donald Trump since Hillary Clinton.

Although Warren is beloved by Democrats (including me) for her accomplishments in protecting consumers, broader public polling gives her a negative-seven unfavourable. Why would you give Mr. Trump that kind of ammunition?

Former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden (Photo: The White House, Wikimedia Commons).

If successful, the younger ones of these five (Sherrod Brown or John Hickenlooper) would be the oldest Democrat ever elected. Any of the others would be the oldest president in American history. That’s a problem, because history shows that American voters like their Republicans old and their Democrats young.

Every non-incumbent Democrat elected president in the past century has been younger than every non-incumbent Republican elected in the past century.  The last time a non-incumbent Democrat over the age of 52 was elected, crossword puzzles and zippers had yet to be invented.

I’d suggest that this age discrepancy is at least partly because the Republican brand sells candidates as grandfatherly protectors, while the Democratic brand sells candidates based on new ideas and a hope of a better tomorrow. Age reinforces the Republican narrative; youth reinforces the Democratic one.

It might also be noted that politicians with the long list of accomplishments that come with age and experience are easier targets for smear campaigns. While Democratic campaigns rarely go all-out for smear tactics, the Republicans have no qualms about “swift-boating” an experienced and able politician.

Speaking of swift-boating, does it remind you of anything when I describe this campaign field as a bunch of aging establishment icons of the Democratic Party participating in a bruising primary campaign in order to take on an unpopular Republican incumbent who had lost the popular vote four years earlier? Because it’s certainly looking like the Democratic Party did not learn the lesson of 2004.

I should mention that 75-year-old John Kerry – the Democrat who lost in 2004 – has publicly mused about seeking the Democratic nomination next year. It’s a prospect that fills me with dread.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (Photo:

Thankfully, the pervasive assumption that the current White House incumbent is easily beatable means that candidates are likely to be coming out of the woodwork looking to score an invitation to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The field is getting so crowded I wouldn’t be surprised to hear perennial candidate Harry Stassen get suggested, which means that there is at least a chance of a dark horse.

For the Democrats, history shows us that young dark horse candidates who inspire hope have been the best standard-bearers for the party. Relatively young and inspiring at the age of 52, Jimmy Carter was a surprise candidate in 1976. The man from Hope – Bill Clinton – was 46 and largely unknown outside of his home state prior to his run in 1992. Branding himself with the word “Hope,” Barack Obama leapt from obscurity to the White House in 2008.

So who might take up this tradition of youthful energy?

One of the Democrats who’s already getting some talk as being “young” and “hopeful,” is the junior Senator from California, Kamala Harris.

If she became president in 2020, Harris would be inaugurated at the age of 56 years and 107 days, making her the oldest non-incumbent Democrat elected president since James Buchanan took the oath in 1856. Still, she should warrant serious consideration given her solid political instincts and her strong presence in debates.

Speaking of youth, it is unfortunate that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who is just 29 — will be constitutionally ineligible to run for President until 2028. By that time, however, she’ll have enough of a congressional track record, and have been in the limelight long enough, that the Republicans will have enough ammunition for a smear campaign. (It’s interesting to note that she’s been first elected to Congress at the same age Mr. Biden was when he was elected in 1972.)

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (Photo: Twitter).

To suggest someone a little less well known, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who represents Hawaii’s second district, has an impressive list of legislative accomplishments for a 37-year-old. She’s an excellent public speaker, and can balance differing wings of the Democratic Party. As a Hindu woman, she’d have some opposition from the hard right, but her general likability, her military service, and her keen intellect would make her an impressive candidate.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo isn’t well known outside her home state, she’s young and accomplished, and could easily follow the Bill Clinton playbook to build a national coalition. If the state’s economy strengthens during her second term, she should be considered a serious factor in the Democratic primaries.

The prospect of a Beto O’Rourke bid for the White House has been bandied about in the media since his insurgent campaign for a Senate seat in Texas. It’s an idea with some merit, since he’s young (41) and seems to be inspiring a new wave of activists. But I have qualms about putting forward any candidate whose most recent political accomplishment is a famous loss. The same concern would apply to 2018’s other famous non-winner, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Dark horse candidates are harder to predict than the obvious establishment icons, and that unpredictability comes with a perception of risk.

But for Democrats, the biggest risk would be making the comfortable choice.

Those participating in the Democratic Party primary process should be thinking about how to win the White House, and the best guide to that is looking at what has worked in previous elections.

NOTE: Edmonton resident Olav Rokne knows more about U.S. presidential politics and science fiction than anyone else I know. He is always welcome to write guest posts here about politics south of the Medicine Line. However, no matter what some Alberta conservatives may think, I don’t do science fiction here. U.S. public relations agencies and their ilk should not conclude based on the appearance of the words “guest post” that I want to run their wonderful free copy on vacuum cleaner repair, natural liver purges, or the need for a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. DJC

9 Comments to: Guest Post by Olav Rokne: America’s Democrats need to saddle up a dark horse

  1. tom in ontario

    January 4th, 2019

    Olav Rokne displays in-depth knowledge and analysis of the electoral scene, putting high priced American publications to shame.
    My beef is with the blogger. “U.S. public relations agencies and their ilk should not conclude based on the appearance of the words ‘guest post’ that I want to run their wonderful free copy on vacuum cleaner repair, natural liver purges…”
    Despite his honest intentions, DJC falls short of the mark. Readers need more than the limited scope of albertapolitics.
    From an online Calgary ad for a colon hydrotherapy clinic, “Our colons play a big role in our digestive tract. They are like a sewer system in our house. What would you do if you have constipation, diarrhea and bloating problems? Let our certified colon hydrotherapist help bring you back to optimal internal health.” Ouch.

  2. David

    January 4th, 2019

    A very good summary of potential Democrat contenders. As a Canadian, I used to not pay too much attention to US politics, but with all that has been going in the last few years it’s hard to ignore and sometimes entertaining and even interesting. I have learned a lot about it.

    First, it seems being or having been a governor has often been a good path to becoming President. Second, I think the party with the crowded field of potential candidates seems to benefit from the competition and the coverage. Third, geography and age matters. In particular, I think a candidate close to Ohio or Michigan might be a good pick for the Democrats. There were several close races in the states in this area. I can’t see the Democrats picking a candidate older than or very close to the age of Trump, so I think that rules out a number of potential candidates. I think they will probably go with someone in their mid 40’s to early 60’s.

    Sad to say, the US does not quite seem ready for a woman President either, but perhaps they may surprise us, just as they did with Obama. Lest we in Canada get too smug about this, when have we elected a woman as Prime Minister? The glass ceiling does still seem hard to break through, which is unfortunate as there are several good potential Democrat candidates who are women.

  3. ronmac

    January 4th, 2019

    Not much difference between the democrats and republicans anymore -six in one, half a dozen in the other. Either way Goldman Sachs will be writing their speeches.

    The upcoming 2020 election cycle will be excruciating. Hundreds of millions will be spent on trying to convince voters there’s vast differences between the two. The deciding factor may come down to the fact that enough voters will believe Donald Trump’s tweets will be much more enjoyable than those of some souless corporate democrat.

    It would be nice if Tulsi Gabbard gets the nod but I doubt it. The DNC has tightened the rules to prevent a rogue candidate from gaining traction like Bernie Sanders did in 2016. You can bet that whoever they put forward in 2020 will come from a slate of officially approved candidates. Say what you want about Donald Trump his election was an expression of democracy, the Republican base rebelling against the GOP elite and choosing an outsider.

    Meanwhile a vetern reporter with NBC and MSNBC quit the network the other day in protest, claiming the network had become a propaganda intrument for the national secuity state. Fake news anyone?

  4. Thom

    January 4th, 2019

    An excellent analysis. I suspect the 2020 Democratic field of contenders will look much like the field of Republican hopefuls leading up to 2016: a clown car of contenders and pretenders all running against a lame duck incumbent. The purported establishment choice – Jeb Bush – never developed any momentum beyond ‘it’s his turn’, and ran a conventional campaign playing on his name recognition and gubernatorial experience. The real dark horses were Ted Cruz, who is experienced but extremely unlikeable, and Marco Rubio, who is likeable but lacks conviction.

    If I recall correctly, DJT was the only candidate who came out against the presumptive Democratic nominee from the start, linking her directly to the “failed” policies of the Obama administration, and practically ignored his opponents during the primaries, speaking directly to the people he was wooing.

    Jon Stewart made the observation during the Obamacare debates (when, with both houses of Congress under Democratic control, getting a bill passed should have been a cake walk) that while the Republicans played politics like varsity football, the Democrats were busy gluing their fingers together like they were in kindergarten. Basically, the Democrats keep tying themselves in knots keeping their various constituencies together without actually saying what they’re in favour of other than getting elected.

    There was an opinion piece in the NYT today encouraging Democrats to support the candidates they want rather than the ones they think will win. It worked for Trump.

  5. Scotty on Denman

    January 4th, 2019

    Dang, my cover’s been blown—now I guess all I can do with this demonstration model is to suck up the broken bits of my relative insuccinctness —and find a place to dump it. Happy New Year!—yeah, right…

    But I do believe in synchronicity (I mean, unless it doesn’t synchronize with my broken watch, otherwise perfectly timely, twice a day) so Olav Rokne’s piece has significant meaning in the coincidental way for me today: I have offended a grrrrrl on FB by inquiring if Elizabeth Warren might be on the wrong side of the Democrats’ political diaper-depends line (I only said that here): she said I was a “troll” trying to “discourage” with “slippery” reasoning. (I only asked, but she might be partly right about the “discourage” part.)

    To be clear, like Rokne I really respect Warren’s sterling progressive credentials but, in addition to his enviously cogent rationales, I referred only to the 2018 writing-on-the-wall midterms—not the partisan divide of right or left but, rather, the age divide. True, the proportion of women, especially those of so-called “color” (including denominational hues) is impressive, but the age dichotomy cannot be glossed over. At least not IMHO.

    Dang! This [email protected]#$% thing won’t even empty properly!—sure glad I never sold one to anybody—I mean, nobody’s bought one yet. That would make me feel like an extra-slippery trolling vacuum salesman.

    Great piece. What with 2019 promising to be a particularly raucous one, politically, here in Canada: two by-elections, federal and provincial here in BC, one potentially precipitating a federal NDP leadership convention if the current leader’s parachute doesn’t deploy, the other an early provincial election if the BC NDP’s Green patch tears off its paraglider, then a humdinger general election in Alberta (in which DJC’s blog will be essential reading which I’m really looking forward to), and of course the federal election—I mean, WOW! Political junkies might wanna keep some poli-naloxone or pundidone handy— could be pretty easy to OD with shit so curiously cheap and potent.

    Meanwhile, we can take respite in the Make-America-The-Greatest-Apprentice-Show-Ever-Again south of the Paul Robeson Line (for those of you who remember his famous concert from the back of a buckboard truck on the American side of the Peace Arch, heavily attended by Canadians on the other).

    For this I thank DJC and Olav Rokne for starting the year off right—like, way off right!

    Peace Out,
    Scotty, V-CS (ret.)


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