- - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite Donald Trump now being the Republican Party’s presumptive president nominee, populism has a greater long-term future with Democrats. Because American politics swings like a pendulum, the victory of populism in the Republicans’ 2016 contest makes a similar showing less likely in 2020. Simultaneously, Democrats’ impending establishment victory makes populism’s success more likely in four years.

Populism is the dominant campaign story of 2016. In both parties, its support hovers around 50 percent. According to Real Clear Politics’ averaging of national polls, Bernie Sanders’ support among Democrats is 44.8 percent and Mr. Trump’s is 46.8 percent among Republicans.

Yet the prospects for these two populist candidates are opposites. While Mr. Sanders barely trails Hillary Clinton in national polling, his defeat has appeared inevitable for some time. At the same time, while Mr. Trump still polls below 50 percent nationally among Republicans following Tuesday’s Indiana primary victory, he has effectively won the Republican nomination.

Just as the prospects of these two populists are so different, so is populism’s likely future in the two parties. While claiming the Republican nomination this year, populism appears to have better longer-term prospects in the Democratic Party. The reason for its dimmer Republican future after 2016 has much to do with the man embodying it now.

Mr. Trump’s success will be difficult to duplicate. Without a record to run on, Mr. Trump is free to be a populist. A natural entertainer and accomplished in his craft, his flamboyant style cannot be consciously emulated, even by another major political outsider.

Populism will also have lost its novelty for Republicans by 2020. Nothing sells in America like “new,” but “new” is also inherently short-lived. Should Mr. Trump win in November, he would be neither new in four years nor so free to run again as a populist — because he would have a presidential record to defend.

The 2020 race dynamic is unlikely to be so favorable to Republican populism. Mr. Trump benefited early from an absurdly crowded field, giving his populist approach time to catch on. This is not likely to happen again. And it is equally unlikely the next crop of candidates will be as unprepared to handle a populist challenge, which was not taken seriously in 2016 until it was too late.

Most importantly, if national polling is correct, Mr. Trump may well lose in November — by a lot. According to Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Mr. Trump trails Mrs. Clinton 40.8 percent to 47.3 percent. Such a spread would approximate John McCain’s margin of defeat in 2008, and be far greater than Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin.

Nothing damages a candidate like defeat. No major party nominee has lost a presidential election and then been renominated since Richard Nixon in 1968 — and that followed Nixon’s razor-thin 1960 loss. If Mr. Trump loses big this November, the taint likely would not just extend to the messenger, but to his populist message, too.

Far more likely, therefore, that populism’s longer-term presidential future is brighter among Democrats than Republicans.

There it already has very strong support — as yet another Sanders’ win Tuesday proved — and does so with less than an ideal messenger. Despite waging an inspired campaign against the entire Democratic establishment, Mr. Sanders remains a small-state, self-described socialist, who would be 75 by his inauguration. Besides being a thorn in Mrs. Clinton’s side currently, Mr. Sanders is a stalking horse for populism’s potential among Democrats. Imagine populism’s effect if carried by another Democratic messenger in four years.

Moreover, populism’s success among Republicans in 2016 will almost certainly boost its prospects among Democrats in 2020. Hillary Clinton, the quintessential establishment candidate, is on track to clinch the 2016 nomination. Populism then becomes the perfect Democratic response to her in four years.

If Mrs. Clinton becomes the incumbent, any Democratic opposition in 2020 will have to move through a non-establishment channel. If she loses this November, then the establishment brand will be tarnished to populism’s advantage.

The pendulum always swings in American politics. Now, it is swinging away from populism for Democrats and toward it for Republicans. However in four years, many factors will be very different.

Democrats likely will be bracing for a populist then. It has already proven a potent force in 2016 Democratic politics. And it has done so even without a particularly potent messenger. Any opposition to Mrs. Clinton — and 2016 shows it exists in substantial amounts — will come through such an anti-establishment route.

Regardless of its sudden and unexpected appearance, populism looks to swing through both parties over the next four years.

J.T. Young has served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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