Many Facets and Aspects to the 2020 Election: A Backgrounder

The 2020 election cycle is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in American history. Arguably the most divisive American president, Donald J. Trump, is most likely to be nominated again as the Republican Party’s candidate for president. It is obviously too early to conjecture on whether he prevails again on election day––scheduled for November 3, 2020––or loses to a Democratic nominee to be chosen from over 20 contenders who are currently preparing for a series of bruising electoral primaries that are to begin in February 2020.

The election is most consequential also because it includes a vigorous contention for control of the 117th Congress in its two lower and upper chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. In today’s 116th Congress, the Democratic Party controls the House after a sound victory in the 2018 congressional elections and has a majority of 235 members to 199 Republicans1 (one seat from North Carolina is yet to be decided in a special election on September 10, 20192). The Senate has a Republican majority of 53 senators, 45 Democrats, and 2 independents who normally vote with the Democrats.3 Between now and election day in November 2020, there also are thousands of contests for state governors and elected officials as well as ballot initiatives on social and other issues.

This paper will first discuss the presidential election in general as the seminal event to elect the head of the executive branch of government who will occupy the White House from January 20, 2021 to January 20, 2025. It also will analyze congressional elections to determine control of the House and Senate from January 2021 to January 2023, as well as briefly look into the elections of some state governors who can play a central role in presidential and other elections. The paper will also look into the process of election, concentrating on primaries and caucuses of both Democratic and Republican parties that determine the identity of their respective nominees who will be chosen at nominating conventions in July and August 2020, respectively.

The Presidential Election

The United States holds presidential elections every four years. According to the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States4––passed by Congress on March 21, 1947 and ratified by the States on February 27, 1951––a president’s term can be renewed only once, allowing presidents to serve a total of eight years. If a president dies, is incapacitated, resigns, or is removed from office, the vice-president is sworn in as president. This president can run again for the office, twice if he/she takes over after the first two years of the previous president’s term and only once if before that.

Whether Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, retains his title in his contest with the Democratic nominee is contingent upon several conditions having to do with his current record in office, achievements and failures, delivering on previous promises, future agenda, and ideology, among other things. Similarly, the identity of the Democratic challenger is determined after a spirited primary season that is likely to run from February to July 2020 during which program ideas, agendas, and policy positions are vigorously debated in public. That identity is also determined by the ability of this or that candidate to strike the necessary bargains and build the winning coalitions in order to receive a majority of delegates who can propel him/her to the position of presidential contender in the Democratic National Convention, set to be held July 13-16, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

As things appear at this stage of the contest, President Trump will likely be the Republican nominee for president.5 He is expected to receive the support of an overwhelming majority of delegates at the Republican National Convention, set to be held August 24-27, 2020 in Charlotte, South Carolina. One moderate Republican, former Governor of the State of Massachusetts William Weld, has declared6 his intention to challenge the president for the Republican nomination. Weld was a respected personality in Republican ranks before President Trump reshaped the party’s politics. Another Republican, conservative former Representative Joe Walsh, who represented Illinois’ 8th congressional district from 2011 to 2013, has also declared his challenge to Trump for the party’s nomination.7 In essence, Weld, who ran for the vice-president position as an independent in 2016, and Walsh are protest candidates who represent the old values of the party.

On the Democratic side, the field is large and awaits obvious winnowing with time, especially as the primary season begins in February 2020. However, a few contenders stand out and are likely to stay in the fray well into the primary season. These include Joe Biden, who served as vice-president to President Barack Obama (2009-2017), Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). (Sanders is Independent but runs as a Democrat.) Recent reports8 showed that President Trump is not in a good position compared to many of these candidates; but the election season can bring many surprises and current conditions may not obtain come November 2020.

The Battle for Congress

Elections for the legislative branch of government are held every two years. All 435 seats of the House of Representatives are up for election and many are usually occupied by incumbents looking to renew their terms.9 One-third of the Senate’s 100 seats, either 33 or 34, are also chosen every two years; in 2020, there will be 34 seats chosen, 22 of which are currently held by Republicans and the rest by Democrats.10 Some incumbents are not running again. This gives the Democrats a distinct advantage since incumbency helps. In 2018, legislative elections gave the Democrats a decisive victory in the House, but they failed to take the Senate and next year have to hold on to their current number of 45 (2 Independents caucus with the Democrats) and win at least 3 more seats.11

This election cycle, the contest to control both houses of Congress promises to be heated and extremely consequential. An early prediction keeps the House of Representatives in Democratic hands, even if the Democrats lose some seats in 2020––a remote prospect. What the Democrats currently are hoping to do is hold on to the eight Senate seats they are defending this year and unseat or win three or four other seats. Three will be enough if a Democrat wins the vice presidency in 2020; otherwise, they will need four to have a majority in the Senate. The US Constitution assigns the vice-president the presidency of the Senate; but he cannot vote unless there is a tie in the number of votes cast over any issue.

One of the most important consequences for controlling both houses of Congress is a party’s ability to either help a sitting president who belongs to that party or to balance against a president from an opposing party. This is ingrained in the US Constitution under the principles of equality between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and of the separation of powers. Today’s political setup in Washington is one of ‘divided government’; the president and Senate are in Republican hands while the House is in Democratic hands. This augurs political paralysis on several important issues such as budgeting, immigration, taxes, etc. But in some instances, large enough majorities in both chambers, can agree on certain issues, especially if the president concurs.

The control of the House of Representatives has a special significance, especially at the present time. The House has the constitutional authority to impeach a sitting president and threaten to depose him. According to Article II of the Constitution, a President can be impeached for committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” After an investigation into the president’s conduct or offense, if a majority of House members votes to impeach him, he is put on trial in the Senate. However, he/she is convicted and removed from office if two-thirds of senators concur with the verdict. President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) was impeached in 199812 in the Republican-controlled House but the Senate failed to garner 67 votes (out of a 100) to remove him from office13 and he finished his term. On the other hand, President Richard Nixon resigned from office before the House voted on articles of impeachment or the Senate voted to remove him.14

The control of the Senate, on the other hand, has its own significance in the United States. The chamber considers executive branch administrative appointments outside of the White House. All federal offices not part of the White House and all federal judges are vetted and approved by the relevant committees in the Senate and voted on by the chamber. A friendly Senate can make the president very happy by approving all personnel to the bureaucracy and his/her chosen judges to federal courts at all levels, especially the Supreme Court. In other words, a Senate can help or hinder a president’s (or his ideological supporters’) course of political, economic, and social action. By extension, a friendly Majority Leader in the Senate (like today’s Mitch McConnel [R-KY]) can assist the president in casting an ideological shadow over the country by allowing his/her appointees to the federal bench to be approved. He can also abort a president’s choices for such bench, as was the case when the same McConnell refused to allow the Senate to vote on Judge Merrick Garland who was chosen as former President Barack Obama nominee for an empty seat on the Supreme Court.

Elections for States’ Offices

Except in a few cases, gubernatorial elections for governors and state and local officials, referenda on issues, and other ballots take place on election day. In 2020, there will be elections for 11 governors. Currently, there are 27 Republican and 23 Democratic governors. As the chief executive of the state, the governor can help his party on the local and national levels because he/she has some control of budgets, ballot issues, voting practices and processes, and other prerogatives that could be essential in tight races.

A Short Primer on the Presidential Election Process

There usually are several candidates who run for their party’s nomination. Seldom do such candidates run unopposed for such nomination. Usually, a sitting president, who is by default the leader of his party, runs for a second term without challengers from within that institution, unless he is perceived as a weak candidate or is not considered representative of the party’s membership. The last five sitting presidents before Donald Trump––Republicans Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, and Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama––were popular enough in their parties not to be challenged when they ran for a second term; except, naturally, by candidates from the opposing party.

A president can still be challenged from within his party, as happened with Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 when late Senator Ted Kennedy opposed him in the Democratic primaries and even in the nominating convention where he finally conceded defeat to Carter. Currently, while President Trump is seen as in full control of the Republican Party, many Republicans––who are dissatisfied with him, his policies, and his moral challenges––are wishing he would be challenged in the Republican primaries. As mentioned above, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld has already declared his candidacy as a Republican. Others may follow, but everyone’s chances run against the popularity that Trump enjoys15 with his party’s base that appears to remain loyal to him despite his many faults and his unfitness as president.

A presidential candidate for a certain party is usually chosen as the party’s nominee through a ‘process of elimination’ known as primaries and caucuses16 in the states of the Union and its possessions and self-administered territories. Both the Republican and the Democratic parties have these; but not all states hold both. The primary/caucus season begins in February 2020. Briefly, primaries are held by states in which voting for a chosen candidate is done by secret ballot. Caucuses, on the other hand, are private meetings held by parties in districts and local communities where participants vote for their best candidate. Both primaries and caucuses can be closed––only party members can vote in them; open––anyone can vote in them; and semi-open/semi-closed––variations of the two main types.

Each primary and caucus nets a certain number of delegates for the particular candidate. If the candidate continues with his/her campaign, his/her accrued number of delegates increases with time. If the candidate does not fare well during the campaign, he/she can pledge (donate) his/her delegates to another, sometimes before the party convention but usually there. The convention’s main goal is to anoint a final candidate for the party to compete in the general election in the following November. What is essential is that a candidate meet with good success in the early primaries, which propels him/her in the subsequent primaries and caucuses and provides him/her with a needed psychological boost.

Normally, the first month or so of a primary season is a crucial period for candidates. Poor-performing ones are likely to lose momentum and, importantly, financial support from large and small donors. After all, why would a donor continue to support a losing campaign, whatever the identity or ideological predilection of the candidate? On the other hand, and because of this, donors follow the winning candidate with financial support since he/she represents the hope for the party in the general election. Many candidates persist despite their poor performance in some states, hoping that other states will give them better results; but, generally speaking, the field begins to winnow in the first few weeks following the start of the season.

Not all states hold primaries and caucuses on the same dates for both parties, but some do. Early states are Iowa (caucus), New Hampshire (primary), South Carolina (primary), and Nevada (caucus). However, Tuesday, March 3, 2020 is an especially important primary/caucus day, called “Super Tuesday,” when over 2,200 Republican and Democratic delegates are chosen (almost 1,500 Democrats and 700 Republicans).17

Each party has its rules for choosing delegates during primaries and caucuses, and nominees during national conventions. Normally, a nominee needs the support from half the number of delegates to a convention to be the party’s representative in the November election. Democrats will have about 4,532 delegates for the 2020 convention; 3,768 pledged (chosen through the primary and caucus process) and 764 automatic delegates (known as ‘super delegates’ and are normally elected officials belonging to the party like governors, representatives, senators, etc.). If a candidate gets 50 percent of the pledged delegates (about 1,885), he/she wins the nomination. If not, the convention becomes a contested convention and the super delegates participate. Then the 50 percent threshold becomes about 2,267 delegates. Republicans will have 2,550 delegates (2,440 pledged and 110 unpledged). A candidate must receive about 1,276 delegates to become the Republican nominee.18

On the other hand, primaries can be brutal election paths to the nomination and no candidate can take them lightly or assume that he/she will succeed or fail. There are many examples of party candidates who thought that they will simply sail through the process, only to discover that they had miscalculated. A clear example was when former Senator Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and was considered early on to be the frontrunner, only to be defeated in the primaries by young, one-term Senator Barack Obama, who went on to win the presidency in 2008 against the Republican nominee Senator John McCain. In the Republican primary election of 2000, McCain himself was thought to be the most popular candidate, but a smear campaign waged on behalf of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush forced his defeat. Donald Trump also waged a campaign of assaults and smears against some sixteen Republican primary challengers to win the Republican nomination and ultimately defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

While about two or three months of primaries and caucuses can determine the identity of a nominee with a high degree of certainty, only a party’s national nominating convention makes the choice official. In 2020, the Democrats hold their convention on July 13-16, relatively early in the election season, while the Republicans convene theirs on August 24-27. It is still early to know if challengers to President Trump succeed in unseating him for the Republican nomination, but for the Democrats, the field seems to be open to surprises. Currently, former Vice-President Joe Biden looks to have a respectable advantage over other Democratic contenders, but he should not assume that the battle for the nomination is easy. Circumstances, styles of campaigning, funding for the campaign, reputation, unforeseen events, and other considerations should all be taken into consideration before he or any other hopeful have a good shot to defeat Donald Trump.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

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