Before running for the presidency, Donald Trump had never run for public office in his life, other than a brief flirtation with running for the Reform Party’s nomination in 2000. Barack Obama had been elected to the U.S. Senate in an uncompetitive race against Republican Alan Keyes, after Jack Ryan withdrew. George W. Bush knocked off incumbent Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race and won reelection by a landslide four years later.
The past three commanders-in-chief show you don’t need to have won a hard-fought race against a top-tier competitor to win a presidential campaign. Still, if you wanted to nominate the strongest possible candidate, you would probably want to pick a candidate who had won that sort of race in the past, someone who had faced adversity, a skilled opponent, and a tough political environment and managed to win anyway.
Most of the 2020 Democratic contenders were elected from extremely safe, deep-blue states or districts, the kinds of places where the real competition is in the primary, not the general election.
New Jersey Republicans talked themselves into believing they had a shot against Cory Booker in his Senate races, but Booker won more than 55 percent in both 2013’s special election and 2014. South Bend is heavily Democratic, so Pete Buttigieg never faced more than nominal general-election competition. Julian Castro lost a runoff in his first bid for mayor of San Antonio, another heavily Democratic city, but once he won his primary the next cycle, his election was almost guaranteed. No Democrat worried about Kamala Harris’ odds in a general election in California. Beto O’Rourke’s old congressional district in El Paso scores D+17 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Bernie Sanders has never won less than 65 percent of the vote in his Vermont Senate elections. None of Amy Klobuchar’s races in Minnesota has been all that competitive.
Four of the past five incumbent presidents were reelected. One of the few figures in the Democratic field who can boast of knocking off an incumbent is Elizabeth Warren, who beat Scott Brown, 53 percent to 46 percent in 2012. Some may argue that Warren doesn’t deserve that much credit for beating Brown, as Democrats have traditionally won the state’s Senate races by a wide margin, and Brown was elected in a unique set of circumstances in the 2010 special election.
There are a few contenders in the Democratic field who won in purple territory. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was helped in 2010 by a significant third-party bid and his state’s GOP having all kinds of problems, but his 2014 reelection bid was genuinely hard-fought; he beat Bob Beauprez by 3 points in a GOP wave year — a year when Cory Gardner beat Mark Udall in the Senate race. His fellow Coloradan, Michael Bennet, also won a hard-fought, tight Senate race in 2010; his 2016 election margin was only six points.
Tim Ryan’s congressional seat usually votes for Democratic presidential candidates, but Ohio Republicans, such as former governor John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, have carried the district in their statewide victories.
It’s possible that some candidate who represents a deep blue state, and who’s never faced a tough general election battle, ends up winning the presidency in 2020. But Democrats might wonder if Hillary Clinton was adequately prepared for the rough-and-tumble of the 2016 race from her time in New York senator, rolling to victory against Rick Lazio and John Spencer, with the political equivalent of a strong wind at her back.