If you study American politics over the last half century, it becomes apparent that the public is so jaded and mistrustful about the political establishment that it will vote for anyone who looks different, talks different and promises change.
Over the last 40 years, we have repeatedly seen that Americans look for presidents who are different in a way that sets them apart from the rest of Washington. As one party nominates a successful candidate of “change,” the other party often counters with an even more extreme version of “change” as compared to the candidate who last won.
In fact, one could make a strong case that much of the same restlessness for change that propelled Barack Obama to the White House ultimately resulted in Donald Trump’s presidency. In both cases, segments of the public who were disgusted by what they perceived as “business as usual in Washington” rallied behind someone they perceived as new, different and unblemished by Beltway politics.
It all started 40 years ago when the populace lost faith in government after Watergate and turned to the previously unheralded ex-Georgia governor, an unassuming, unpretentious fellow named Jimmy Carter. Let’s follow the progression, starting with him.
- Democrats, 1976: Washington is hopelessly corrupt. We need someone honest and down-to-earth—a real outsider who isn’t corrupted by all these Beltway games. Here’s a humble peanut farmer.
- Republicans, 1980: Your peanut farmer is incompetent and weak. Let’s try a B-list actor instead. At least he knows how to play a president: a little John Adams and a lot of John Wayne. And the eastern elites don’t think much of him, so he’s definitely an outsider!
- The Public, 1984: Carve him into Mount Rushmore! He can have Jefferson’s spot.
- Republicans, 1988: We can’t run the actor again, so will you accept his blue-blooded, insider vice president in lieu of his third term? And besides, you shouldn’t hold that silver spoon against him. He moved to Texas 40 years ago, and he eats pork rinds and listens to country music. Close enough, right?
- The Public, 1988: Sure! Let’s win one more for the Gipper!
- The Public, 1991: This was the best idea ever! USA! USA! Ooo-rah!
- The Public, 1992: Um, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Can we have another outsider, please?
- Democrats, 1992: Ah-ha! So you want a real outsider? We’ve got a true man of the people here, someone who feels your pain. Yeah, he’s a real feeler, all right. (Wink.) And he’s from Arkansas! I mean, how much more “outsider” can you get, am I right? Yeah, he’s an Ivy Leaguer and a Rhodes Scholar, but we’re just going to focus on him being folksy, okay?
- The Public, 1996: Yeah, he’s folksy! Maybe a little more handsy than we’d like, but we’d have a beer with him. Let’s order another round.
- Republicans, 2000: So, you want folksy, huh? Someone you can have a beer with? Here’s your guy. Forget all about him being born on third base; he talks and thinks like an outsider, and that’s what matters, right? He says “nuke-u-lar,” just like you! And we can promise you this much: He may have gone to both Yale and Harvard, but he’s definitely no Rhodes Scholar.
- The Public, 2004: You’re right, he’s no Rhodes Scholar, but at least he doesn’t windsurf. What red-blooded, real American goes windsurfing? Besides, he looks cool in a flight suit. Mission Accomplished!
- The Public, 2006: Yeah, about Iraq … And whoa, what just went down in New Orleans? Also, what’s he trying to do to Social Security? And I’m getting a sinking feeling about my 401(k).
- The Public, 2008: Okay, we can’t believe we went for the old “he’s not really an insider” ploy again. What’s the old saying? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a dozen times…” Can we get another outsider? Someone really different? Please?
- Democrats, 2008: So, you want someone who’s really an outsider? Wow, do we have the candidate for you! This guy is absolutely, positively, indisputably different than every one of the 42 men who have been president until now.
- The Public, 2012: Yep, he’s different. And he’s definitely better than the other guy, who isn’t different at all.
- Republicans, 2016: Someone different, huh? Hold our beer.
At this rate, it hardly seems insane to think that Democrats might win the White House in 2020 by running the Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (slogan: “You Want A Businessman For President? Elect One Who Actually Wins”).
Or hey, perhaps Team Blue can do the Republicans one better with the reality show route and nominate Kim Kardashian. You may laugh, but how many people laughed when Donald Trump descended that escalator in the summer of 2015? Besides, let’s be honest: How many Democrats wouldn’t take their chances with Kim K (or virtually any Kim who isn’t a North Korean dictator) in a matchup against Donald Trump?
While this columnist is by no means seriously suggesting a Kardashian Kandidacy, I would suggest the trend line of the last 40 years indicates that the next Democratic nominee needs to be closer to a Kardashian than a Klobuchar.
And as Trump himself has proven, being the nominee of one of America’s major parties just about guarantees you at least 46 percent of the vote—no matter how much of a joke your candidacy might seem. In a race with third parties gaining small shares of the overall vote, 46 percent is just close enough to get you there with a little luck in the right states. Since independent candidate Ross Perot roiled presidential waters in 1992 and 1996, no Republican or Democrat has received less than 46 percent of the national vote, and no Democrat has received less than 46 percent of the two-party vote since the aforementioned B-list actor Ronald Reagan was president. The last time any Republican received less than 46 percent of the two-party vote was Barry Goldwater in 1964, back in the days when he was still considered a right-wing kook rather than a socially liberal, fiscally libertarian statesman.
The persuadable segment of the public—that is to say, the small number who live between the 46-yard lines or, more importantly, those who only bother to vote when someone new and exciting comes along—is no longer impressed by statesmanlike senators who appear to offer more of the same old Washington insider game that the public doesn’t trust.
In short, running “more of the same” against a populist—even a fake one—isn’t going to get it done. We have seen that time and again over the last four decades. If the Democratic Party wants to beat Donald Trump, it’s going to have to get creative in 2020. I’m not suggesting any names, but polling shows that almost all the “Single Ladies” support the Democrats.
Okay, maybe running Queen Bey for president might be a stretch, but you see where I’m going. Nobody thought an ex-peanut farmer, a washed-up actor or a celebrity reality show host with no political experience could win either—until they did. And every one of them took down an opponent who was seen, rightly or wrongly, as “more of the same.”
It’s time to get creative—or maybe even get in “Formation.”
Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.