Having captured five of the last six popular votes, Democrats have gotten really good at winning presidential elections — and really bad at winning everything else. The party has never been less healthy on the congressional or state level. Under President Obama, Democrats have lost control of 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 11 governorships, and 30 state legislative chambers.
The party is scrambling for a strategy that will shake things up, so here’s one: Punt the 2016 election entirely, set up for gains in 2018, then force a GOP turnover in 2020.
Yes, this is a radical idea — maybe even a crazy one, given that it would cede executive action, control over foreign policy, and possibly multiple Supreme Court appointments to the GOP. But political science suggests that winning the presidency in both 2016 and 2020 is next to impossible. Setting their sights on 2020 instead would grant Democrats those same benefits four years later, plus something even more valuable: control over the redistricting process for the next 10 years.
A Democratic president seeking reelection in 2020 would be running against history. One party almost never succeeds in holding the White House for more than three straight terms. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt, amid the uncertainty of World War II, has bucked the trend in the last 100 years. Then there’s the economic factor. Recessions tend to occur every five to 10 years, regardless of president, putting us on schedule for another before 2020, which could be politically fatal for an incumbent of either party.
Down ballot, the opposition party will reap the political benefits. Historically, the president’s party suffers heavy losses in midterm elections on both the federal and state levels, as Democrats have under Obama. And the side that sweeps into power in 2020 — likely riding the winning presidential candidate’s coattails — will have the power to draw congressional and state legislative lines for the next decade.
Consider what happened in 2010. Riding strong anti-Obama sentiment into office, newly GOP legislatures seized the opportunity to gerrymander Congress and their own chambers to lock in Republican dominance through 2020. The result has been partisan gridlock in Washington but unchecked conservative lawmaking in the states on issues like immigration, abortion, and the environment.
With so few state legislatures and governorships in their hands, Democrats are in danger of being shut out of redistricting — and, thus, governing — for the second straight decade. They need 2010-esque wave elections in both 2018 and 2020. And the likeliest way to accomplish that is to have an unpopular Republican president.
Or the Democrats could win in 2016, lose in 2020, and watch history repeat itself.
Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @baseballot.