Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Warren have little in common. But the conservative Republican and progressive Democrat, the once and future presidential candidates, last week pulled off what may be an unprecedented political feat: They made the year 2019 practically disappear.
Fifty-two weeks of celebration and sorrow, of holidays and memorials, of births and brisses, and bar and bat mitzvahs still lie ahead. But for those who pay close attention to presidential politics, Romney’s and Warren’s declarations meant that 2020 is already here.
Warren came first, with a New Year’s Eve announcement of her opening an exploratory committee to run for president. Through the 1970s and ’80s, serious candidates usually waited until the fall before the election year to announce their plans. (One unsurprising exception was early vintage Jerry Brown, who waited until March of 1976 to announce his primary challenge to Jimmy Carter.) Since the mid-1990s, the conventional timeline has moved up the earliest announcements to spring of the previous year, which still allows voters, activists and donors at least a short respite after the midterm elections to regroup before the presidential campaign season publicly begins.
But Warren jumped in even earlier, not even waiting until 2018 had concluded, thereby increasing the pressure on her potential opponents to finalize their plans so as not to risk losing supporters to her by the time she follows through on her promise to formally announce her candidacy in early 2019. It’s likely that by the end of February, the Democratic field will include more than a dozen official candidates, with another dozen or more poised to enter in the following weeks.
“[Romney’s] recurrent voice of opposition to Trump from within Republican ranks will create a political space inside the party for a primary challenge.”
Warren is still a major force to be reckoned with, but like her generational and ideological counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, she runs the risk of being crowded out by one of a passel of younger progressive upstarts. The fact that she announced her candidacy on such an unusually early date was seen by many observers as a sign of her diminished status in the race, as California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and other fresh faces compete to draw attention and support from her.
Which brings us to Romney, the junior senator from Utah who isn’t a candidate for president. But on New Year’s night, only one day after Warren’s announcement, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Romney in which he excoriated Trump for a lack of honesty, integrity and character. Although Romney has said that he supports much of Trump’s domestic policy agenda — including tax cuts, judicial appointments and funding a wall at the U.S.–Mexico border — his criticisms sent a signal that he is positioning himself as a regular antagonist to Trump and will possibly challenge him for the GOP nomination.
Of the two missives, Romney’s non-announcement could have even more impact on the 2020 campaign than Warren’s formal entry into the race. Whether Romney chooses to become a candidate, his recurrent voice of opposition to Trump from within Republican ranks will create a political space inside the party for a primary challenge. He will establish a rallying point for disaffected GOP activists and officeholders, providing cover for a potential opponent to organize a campaign of his or her own.
Trump will still be difficult to defeat in a primary, as he enjoys overwhelming support from Republican voters. But no president who has faced a significant challenger from within his own party has ever won re-election. Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his race in 1968. Gerald Ford (1976), Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992) all survived their party’s nomination fight, but were so weakened that they were defeated in the general election. Even a defeated GOP challenger could make Trump’s path to re-election much more difficult.
There’s no way of knowing whether Warren will emerge as the nominee, or whether the eventual Democratic standard-bearer will be equipped for a successful general election battle against Trump. But whatever his intention, Romney is making that future nominee’s job much easier.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.