Heading into re-election season, President Trump holds one particularly powerful political advantage. It isn’t exactly hidden, but it isn’t discussed much either.
It is simply this: He is an incumbent president who apparently won’t face a significant challenge from within his own party.
Oh, he faces a nominal primary challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who hasn’t held public office in more than 20 years, and whose last campaign was run on the Libertarian Party line, not a Republican one. And the president’s former communications director over the weekend suggested Republicans may need to look for an alternative to Mr. Trump.
But if that is the extent of the opposition from within, the president can look forward to cruising through the primary season without having to absorb the kinds of blows from inside his own party that the Democratic candidates are busy landing on one another right now. He will have the political equivalent of a first-round bye in the playoffs.
How important is that? History tells the tale. Simply being the incumbent in a presidential campaign is itself an enormous advantage. Since 1900, a sitting president has run 20 times. Fifteen times the incumbent has won.
Being an incumbent with no serious intra-party rival vastly improves that incumbency advantage. Four of the five incumbent presidents who lost their races in that time span had to beat back a big internal challenge. The last three incumbents who failed in their re-election efforts each faced significant primary opponents: Gerald Ford was challenged by Ronald Reagan in 1976, Jimmy Carter by Ted Kennedy in 1980, and George H.W. Bush by Pat Buchanan in 1992. Each of those challenges diverted precious re-election resources and undermined party unity.
There is no sign that Mr. Trump will face such a problem. Mr. Weld is trying, of course. He was at the Iowa State Fair over the weekend, along with a passel of Democratic candidates, trying to generate some interest. But polls to date show Mr. Trump ahead of him by 70 to 80 percentage points. In a straw poll at the Iowa fair, the president’s advantage was more like 90 points.
There are other Republicans who could make a more serious run, but they apparently won’t do so. Two in particular— Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich —both considered the possibility, but are taking a pass. Other Trump critics from within the GOP who could be serious opponents—former Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, for example—have made no moves in that direction.
The door isn’t closed just yet. Over the weekend, former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci —who has fallen into a long-distance feud with Mr. Trump after charging that the president’s racially charged comments are dividing the country—said Republicans may need to look for a new candidate.
In an interview with Axios, Mr. Scaramucci compared the president to a nuclear reactor heading into meltdown, and said that if Mr. Trump “doesn’t reform his behavior, it will not just be me, but many others will be considering helping to find a replacement in 2020.”
But with Mr. Trump’s job-approval among Republicans running in the 90% range, the incentive for others to jump in simply isn’t very great.
Considering how divisive Mr. Trump was within his own party just four years ago, this situation represents a remarkable turnaround. It’s not an accident, though. The Trump political machine began preparing for re-election virtually from the moment the president was inaugurated, so it has left no open paths for other Republicans.
In addition, Mr. Trump himself has been brutal in attacking Republicans who criticize him, making it clear that taking him on would be a painful exercise. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, for example, is a onetime Trump critic who has toned down his criticism as he tends to his own Senate re-election campaign.
Meantime, on the other side of the political battlefield stands a crowded field of Democrats, who spent a lot more time beating up on each other than going after the president in their first two rounds of debates.
The president may enjoy another tactical advantage. There’s a good chance that a significant independent or third-party presidential candidate will emerge, a development that would likely only split the anti-Trump vote and siphon support away from the president’s eventual Democratic challenger. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said he will consider next month whether to jump in as an independent.
Third-party candidates Gary Johnson, a libertarian, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party, siphoned off almost six million votes and wounded Democrat Hillary Clinton far more in the 2016 election than is commonly recognized. A repeat of that exercise would only add to the tactical advantages Mr. Trump already enjoys.