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Inside the 2020 presidential race: What to expect from Trump and the Democrats

President Donald Trump speaks to media at the

President Donald Trump speaks to media at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in this Dec. 1 2018 photo. Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

No one in their right - or left - mind would try to predict the 2020 presidential election this far out.

But we can analyze the fundamental dynamics and revealing history at play to anticipate and better understand what we’ll be witnessing as these next 700-some days unfold in no doubt numerous unexpected ways.

All presidents say they’ll seek reelection to head off opponents and lame-duck status. President Donald Trump already has. He’s even publicly invited Mike Pence to be his running mate again, for what that’s worth in Trumpworld. (Pence accepted.)

Trump could have a Republican primary challenger - someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who’ll be out of office with nothing to lose, or Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who’s agreed to more media appearances recently, a tell-tale sign of emergence.

They would present Trump as an unpredictable, disruptive force whose liberal spending policies and behavior lost the House in 2018 - and as a candidate who is not a genuine Republican, which is true.

But he is president, which is quite powerful. He controls the Republican National Committee. He added GOP seats in the Senate and is steadily solidifying a conservative judiciary.

Historically, primary challengers to sitting presidents have zero chance of winning a party nomination. They do, however, have an excellent chance of dooming their party’s president. Think Ronald Reagan versus Gerald Ford in 1976, Edward Kennedy versus Jimmy Carter in 1980, Pat Buchanan then Ross Perot versus George H.W. Bush in 1992.

At the moment, Trump maintains around 90 percent approval among GOP members. Part of that vast support is due to the absence of a viable alternative and the presence of a booming economy. Strong economies can fade rather quickly, however. Anyway, as the recent midterm House elections demonstrated, Americans do not vote out of gratitude. But they do vote out of fear and anger.

Rising interest rates, the impact of Trump’s trade tariffs, especially across the agricultural Heartland that fueled his 2016 electoral upset and a stumbling stock market, among other factors, could by 2020 instill bad economic news and fears, which Americans do vote against. Remember "It’s the economy, stupid" in 1992?

In 2016, Trump gained a crucial advantage not by anything he did, but by what Democrats did. They nominated the next in line, Hillary Clinton - the tired face of old and new scandals that made the New York billionaire seem the least worst alternative.

She also often appeared sickly and ran a, uh, deplorable campaign with no central message of hope or change. Her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, excited young voters, who often don’t show up on election day. He is not a real Democrat and calls himself a socialist - traditionally a scary word for America’s slightly right-of-center national electorate.

No one knows, of course, what might happen before the summer conventions of 2020. A major terrorist incident, for example, could boost or batter Trump, depending on how he handled it. A devastating special counsel’s report could hurt badly.

Democrats will have a smorgasbord of candidates to choose from, most of them pretty far from the center that usually wins presidential elections. They are already organizing offstage - senators, mayors, governors and an aged ex-vice president.

In their wishful eyes the illegitimate billionaire usurper looks vulnerable. So the field of self-appointed wannabes may well exceed the 17 on the Republican side of the aisle last time. Barack Obama’s inattention to his party, and the resulting GOP steamroller at state and federal levels devastated much of Democrats’ farm teams in 2016. So their 2020 field is largely unknown.

Unless a lack of funds and votes winnows it down quickly, a surfeit of little-known voices makes it more difficult for a single articulate, reasonable Trump alternative to emerge and embed his or her attractive, practiced personality in voter minds.

Another serious threat would be a replay of the internal Democratic Party feeding frenzy that produced the shameless partisan overkill during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Overzealous House Democratic committee chairs seeking the holy grail of Trump’s impeachment could create the kind of voter backlash the GOP ran into in the 1998 midterms after its Clinton impeachment overreach.

For better or worse, it’s safe to say Trump will also routinely insert his advisory and critical tweets into the the other party’s process, which will delight media and suck oxygen from Democrats, as designed.

There is one other unknown factor: Trump fatigue. No doubt he knows how to play an audience, to string it along and keep it coming back, as he did for 12 years of good ratings with "The Apprentice."

But that reality show was weekly. Trump’s current executive producer gig is daily, sometimes hourly. The turmoil. The firings. The ego. The palace intrigues. The abrupt reverses.

It bothers both establishments, which pleases Trump’s base. But it’s also exhausting for a mass audience that might just want a competent president free of boastful drama.

America’s two-party system has been short-sighted, greedy, unresponsive and dysfunctional for years. That’s how Trump walked in. So, expecting a compelling, careful candidacy with a comprehensive game plan is a real reach.

But if Democrats come up with an intelligent, reasonable alternative with a cogent, detailed argument for change - someone with the calm self-assurance that won’t fall for Trump’s brawl bait - that adult might assemble a coalition of the 55 percent of Americans who disapprove or are simply tired of Trump and his behavior. And they’d need to come in sufficient numbers in just the right places for electoral votes, not bunched on the coasts.

But since Trump so far has made no effort to broaden his solidly loyal plurality of 44 percent, they might just create the first one-term presidency in more than a quarter century.

Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.