The president, a New Yorker, wins a very close and bitterly contested election and flips the party holding the White House. His first term is controversial, with many contentious domestic and foreign issues. The country is polarized, with major urban-rural divides, great income inequalities, and much anxiety in the working class. Immigration is a huge issue.
He runs for reelection and is defeated, again in a very close and bitterly contested race, by the candidate from Indiana. The new president begins reversing many of the previous president’s policies and confronting the many still-serious national problems. The defeated incumbent immediately begins campaigning to reclaim his presidency. In the next election the incumbent is ousted by the previous president in yet another close election, also after only one term.
I am describing, of course, the elections of 1884, 1888 and 1892, which Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, won, then lost to Benjamin Harrison, senator from Indiana, then won again – the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
One of my earlier commentaries set out the alternative history of Hillary Clinton winning in 2016 and catastrophe befalling her administration and the Democratic Party. A series of presidential elections almost 150 years ago presents one possible future.
Assuming President Trump is not impeached, convicted and removed from office – and based on what we know today, I’d bet my house and one of my cats on it – he will be very competitive for reelection in 2020. One possible future has him losing narrowly to the Democrat from Indiana, former South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg. Trump concedes defeat, keeps his political organization intact, not to mention his voter base, and immediately launches his 2024 campaign to regain the White House.
President Buttigieg attempts to undo many of Trump’s accomplishments, just as Benjamin Harrison attempted to undo many of Cleveland’s, but a Senate still in Republican control stifles him and often he has to govern by executive order.
He is able to keep the Democratic Party unified, so he does not have a serious challenger for his renomination in 2024. Neither does Trump. Even though Trump loses in 2020, his organization and base remain strong enough to intimidate serious challengers. And in another close election Trump beats Buttigieg in 2024 and returns to the White House for a final four-year term.
Mark Twain is purported to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and regular commentator for KBIA's Talking Politics.