By Mark McKinnon
Editor’s note: Mark McKinnon is a former adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain, and creator and host of the documentary TV series “The Circus” on Showtime. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN) — The assertion I find most laughable and annoying about presidential campaigns is when people say, “X won’t happen because X has never happened before.”
Like, America will never elect a black president. Or a Hollywood actor. Or a peanut farmer from the South. Or someone with no political experience.
We have no idea what will happen in the 2020 race for president, but it’s a pretty good bet — given the volatile nature of our politics, and the size, diversity and breadth of the Democratic field of candidates — we could end up with something that has never happened before.
But there is one feature of presidential elections that holds up pretty well historically. Whenever we turn out a president after one term, which is rare, or turn to a new party after eight years, the candidate we select is usually the exact opposite of the person we reject. Which makes sense. We are tired of X so we choose Y.
The examples in recent history are Democrat Jimmy Carter replacing Republican Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford; Republican Ronald Reagan replacing Carter; Democrat Bill Clinton replacing Republican George H. W. Bush, Republican George W. Bush replacing Clinton; Democrat Barack Obama replacing Bush; and, of course, Donald Trump replacing Obama.
In the one instance in recent history when a party extended its eight-year tenure to 12, American voters picked someone of the same party of the prior White House occupant (Bush 41 to Reagan).
George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000 illustrates the point of opposites. I worked as a media adviser on that campaign, and we didn’t run so much against the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, as we ran against Bill Clinton, who was leaving office. Bush’s message, which we repeated thousands of times, was “I promise to restore dignity and honor to the White House.” This had nothing to do with Gore and everything to do with Clinton, because the country was worn out by Clinton’s shenanigans.
But eight years later, voters were done with Bush and turned to someone who offered a stark political contrast: Democrat Barack Obama. I told John McCain that he could have run the perfect campaign and it wouldn’t have mattered. He would’ve lost by five points instead of seven. Voters wanted a fresh start and someone as different as possible from George W. Bush.
Therefore, perhaps the most relevant and telling question we can ask to shed light on 2020 is not “Who can take the fight to Trump?” or “Who is the most electable?” or “Who can raise the most money?” The question may be: “Is the person most likely to replace Trump the candidate who is least like him?” In other words, the polar opposite.
Who might that be?
So, I posed that question this week to a group of college students when I went to lecture at the Yale Politics Initiative, a program started by a couple of enterprising students, Michael Michaelson and Paul Gross.
First we talked about and identified the defining characteristics of Donald Trump. The list would not surprise anyone.
Then we went through the same exercise with the top tier potential candidates in the Democratic primary. And in this incredibly diverse field, many stood out in contrast to President Trump, including and especially: Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang.
But the candidate who offered by far the clearest contrast to Trump is a religious veteran from the Midwest. He is also a Rhodes scholar, a millennial, speaks eight languages, is thoughtful, substantive, and married — just once — to a man.
Yup. Mayor Pete, aka Pete Buttigieg. He is the candidate most of these students — 11 out of 16 in the group — said they intended to vote for. The next closest vote-getter was O’Rourke with five, though Harris and Klobuchar were close behind. (Because some students had a couple of strong favorites, I allowed the option of casting two votes.)
Maybe this explains how and why a guy no one had ever heard of, from a place few people have been, with a name no once can pronounce, is suddenly running third in the polls in Iowa.
It is refreshing, in an era when politics have been largely dominated by celebrity and big money, that someone can emerge from the pack based entirely on the power of personality, ideas and character.
Of course, with all the variables in front of us, it’s absurd to predict today how this election will turn out.
On the other hand, to those who say “America is never going to elect a 37-year-old gay mayor of a small town in the Midwest as President of the United States,” I say, “You mean, like we would never elect a billionaire real estate developer from New York with no political experience?”
When it comes to American presidential politics, never say never.
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