The conclusion of the special counsel’s report that President Trump did not conspire with Russia all but assures that Mr. Trump’s political fate will be determined at the ballot box next year — and that Democratic voters already consumed by electability will become even more singularly focused on finding a candidate who can defeat the president.
With House Democrats now far less likely to impeach Mr. Trump, and Senate Republicans certain to resist removing him if they did, the president will be judged in a 2020 race sure to revolve more around his performance in office than how he won in the first place.
That may disappoint some Democrats, who believe that the Russian interference on Mr. Trump’s behalf in the 2016 race makes his presidency illegitimate, but it offers the party a chance to oust him through democratic means that could prove harder to dispute.
Even as the candidates lining up to take on Mr. Trump demanded Sunday that Attorney General William P. Barr release the full report by Robert S. Mueller III, some top Democrats urged them to abandon the idea that the president will be removed through investigations, and instead focus on the promises they say he has failed to keep.
“Democrats should not focus too much on Mueller,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago said. Pointing to signs in the market that the economy is softening, he added, “The flashing yellow light in front of this president is the bond market and the prospect of a recession.”
The 2020 hopefuls may not need much convincing. On the campaign trail, few of the top-tier Democratic candidates spend much time inveighing about Mr. Trump’s links to Russia.
“I hope this motivates all of us to stay focused on the issues that really impact our lives in the everyday,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., said in an interview on MSNBC on Sunday, adding that “part of how we lost our way in 2016 was it was much too much about him and it left a lot of people back home saying, ‘O.K., but nobody’s talking about me.’”
But many of the presidential candidates had sidestepped questions about impeachment by pointing to the Mueller inquiry and the need to wait for its results. And that stalling tactic is no longer an option.
If they now reject impeachment, that could alienate some in their activist base who are outraged by Mr. Trump’s policies and his deeply polarizing behavior. But to continue to push for a series of inquiries could irritate general election voters who loathe Washington dysfunction.
Republicans moved swiftly on Sunday to portray Democrats as unrelenting Javerts hunting their Jean Valjean.
“Now Democrats are saying the special counsel’s investigation wasn’t enough and that they must continue their baseless fishing expeditions in Congress,” said Steve Guest, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
The good news for the Democratic contenders is that most of the party’s voters have not made impeachment a litmus test: Even after Mr. Mueller delivered the report to Mr. Barr on Friday, few activists confronted the candidates at weekend appearances with questions about Russia.
With Democrats winning back a foothold of power by capturing the House last year, enthusiasm for impeaching Mr. Trump has ebbed. A recent CNN survey found that 36 percent of Americans support impeaching and removing the president from office, with Democratic support falling to 68 percent from 80 percent in the months since the midterm elections.
What has been top of mind for the party’s rank-and-file is finding a candidate who can defeat Mr. Trump. And the perception of viability will become only more of a coveted attribute now that the president heads into his re-election campaign with poor approval ratings but cleared of colluding with a foreign adversary, an allegation that had clouded his administration for almost two years.
“I think most Democrats believed yesterday and they do today that Trump will be on the ballot and that he will be formidable,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist.
Democratic strategists were not completely disappointed to see the Mueller inquiry come to an end, even if it denied them a political weapon. They now hope liberal activists, and lawmakers, will offer party leaders the latitude to pivot to a more broadly appealing message that can win over some of the voters who only reluctantly supported Mr. Trump in 2016.
“Congress should absolutely fulfill its oversight role by investigating the president’s wrongdoing, but we also have to prosecute the economic case against him,” said Stephanie Cutter, a top aide in former President Barack Obama’s re-election. “Middle-class people are paying more in taxes today because of Trump’s tax bill, and lost jobs because of an egotistical trade war. He doubled our debt, and wasted money on a wall. America is not greater today than it was when he took office. We need to tell that story, too.”
Democratic officials believe there is an obvious model: the sort of kitchen table campaigns that brought the party so much success in last year’s midterm elections.
“We’ve got to run campaigns on health care and taxes and beat Trump on the issues,” said Anne Caprara, who steered Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois to victory last year.
Ms. Caprara said that what helped Mr. Trump in 2016 was the perception that he was an outsider who would disrupt the status quo in a self-dealing capital and revive manufacturing in the Midwest.
“Well, he is a typical politician: He didn’t drain the swamp and he didn’t bring back the jobs,” she said.
Mr. Trump may enjoy a short-term lift from the conclusion of the report. It will certainly draw his own political base even closer to him, affirming in their minds that he was the victim of overzealous Democrats bent on undermining his presidency. The White House press office pushed that message aggressively Sunday night, saying that Democrats had “slandered” Mr. Trump and that “this should never again happen to an American president.”
But while the deepening bond between conservative voters and Mr. Trump will solidify his political foundation, it will make it more difficult for Republicans in heavily suburban states and districts to separate themselves from the president next year.
Mr. Trump may have a firmer grip on conservatives, but he and his party are still saddled with the same problem that weighed them down when Democrats picked up 40 seats to gain a majority in the House: the up-for-grabs voters who decide elections cannot abide his incendiary conduct.
And that view will remain fixed so long as the president keeps acting in ways that turn off the political center, no matter the conclusion of the Mueller report or any of the other inquiries swirling around Mr. Trump’s presidency.
“Tomorrow he could call a 5-year-old a curse word,” Ms. Caprara said, “and we’d be onto a new news cycle.”