What Next

The 2020 Presidential Election Is Already Radically Different

On the right, there’s a chance the sitting president could be primaried and lose. On the left, we’re seeing the largest policy shift in a generation.

Collage of the White House, torn in half, with a blue circle superimposed on the right side.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images.

The following essay is adapted from an episode of What Next, Slate’s new daily news podcast. Listen to What Next via Apple PodcastsSpotifyTuneInStitcherOvercast, or wherever you get your shows.

If there’s a single moment that sums up just how absurd the 2020 presidential race feels to me right now, it’s this one from George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday talk show last weekend.

Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, was a guest on the show. After being played an old clip of himself saying he’d never run for president … he announces not that he’s running, not quite, but that he’s thinking about it. Oh yeah, and he tells everyone that he’s got a big announcement in the near future.

It was this elaborate presentation of a pretty simple idea: a presidential Kabuki dance

“It is. I think Kabuki is the exact right term for it,” says Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s former chief political correspondent and an op-ed columnist at the New York Times. “This is true of the ritual of running.”

Jamelle joined me this week on What Next, Slate’s new daily news podcast. I asked him to tell me I’m not crazy (even though presidential campaign coverage can make me feel that way) as I try to keep track of exploratory committees and chicken dinners in Iowa.

“It’s, for whatever reason, considered to be bad form just to plainly say, ‘I want to be president, and I’m going to run for it,’ ” he says. “ ‘I’ve been planning this for some time.’ You have to pretend as if that somehow isn’t the case.”

Like it or not, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these announcements about announcements. Jamelle says even if it feels like it’s too early to be paying attention, it isn’t.

“Political scientists identify something called the invisible primary—that’s just the term given to all of the jockeying and maneuvering that happens before people start to vote,” he says. “Figures like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders—they’ve been making the rounds in South Carolina, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in Nevada, and they’ve been visiting these places for the past two years. I mean, when you start to hear these announcements, I wouldn’t think of them as early. I would think of them as more or less right on time.”

Jamelle doesn’t think about this in terms of one candidate versus another. Not yet, anyway. He thinks about how all these candidates are changing what we talk about, and how.

“My interest is in how familiar dynamics play out, and how certain candidates connect, and certain candidates don’t,” he says. “I have a framework for thinking about it, and there’s a degree to which I’m kind of plugging in the values for any given election.”

If politics is one big experiment, Jamelle’s got a bunch of hypotheses he’s looking to test out. Even though the election itself is still a while away, he’s got some hints about what’s coming next. And while most pundits are talking about the Democrats because it’s an open field for them, I’m curious about the Republicans—what are they going to be testing out?

“I think that the institutional Republican Party, which I think just refers to the long-standing body of activists, donors, and lawmakers who’ve kind of been in the game for a while—institutions like that— they’re going to want to run a very standard-issue incumbency campaign,” he says. “I actually would not be surprised if they try to lean on the 1984 [Ronald] Reagan campaign, ‘Morning in America.’ They’ll emphasize economic growth. They’ll emphasize wage growth. They’ll emphasize relative peace and prosperity.”

However, Jamelle says the Republican Party as an institution has a problem: President Donald Trump.

“[He] understands his victory in 2016 as basically a product of the kind of breathless fearmongering, anti-immigrant, America’s-on-the-verge-of-chaos message,” he says. “I think messaging-wise, one of the dynamics to examine over the next two years is the conflict between the president’s messaging and the institutional Republican Party’s messaging, and how they attempt to square the circle. Now, it’s possible, especially given the degree to which the Republican Party elites have basically gone all in on the president, that they’ll simply adopt his style of messaging, and that there won’t be any particular divide between the two. But I think there’ll be some tension there.”

When looking back at the midterm results where, while Donald Trump’s message of “America in chaos” worked to turn out his very dedicated base, it really turned off a lot of the electorate.

“Donald Trump’s Republican allies—they lost more or less every single demographic category other than white men, and I think they narrowly won whites without college degrees,” Jamelle says. “Every other group they lost, and many of them by significant margins. And I think what’s critical is if you look at a map of the United States with House districts on it, and superimpose that on a map of the electoral college, Democratic House victories, given where they occurred, they correspond to basically a modest Electoral College win. Yes, Republicans held the Senate, but other than Florida, I believe, those were all red-state seats. That doesn’t really translate into anything major for the party’s presidential prospects.”

But Jamelle believes there’s a second thing going on here and that is that Donald Trump is very unpopular.

“His administration, you can fairly say is in chaos. He faces criminal investigation. Several close associates have been indicted. It’s entirely possible that by the end of this year, his presidency might be falling apart in a dramatic way, more so than it is now,” he says. “So there are whispers of a primary campaign, and Republican leaders are clearly worried about someone trying to primary the president.”

You might be thinking, “Wait, what? Republicans would primary a sitting president of their own party?” But there is historical precedence for this. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush both faced primaries when they ran for re-election, and they both ultimately lost.

“If John Kasich of Ohio jumps in, if Mitt Romney decides to take a shot at it, that will be a real dilemma for the party,” Jamelle says. “Not that Trump would necessarily lose the nomination. I can’t even think of a time that’s ever happened in American politics ever, but a sitting president facing a primary challenge is like a bad omen for the election, in part, because it signals really critical weakness within the party base.”

However, it’s not just Republicans—there are divisions on the left. But even though labels like progressive or populist or socialist are breaking up Democratic lawmakers into groups, most are still united under a common theme.

“It’s been funny—over the past two years, one of the recurring narratives is that Democrats can’t just be anti-Trump, but looking at election results, and looking at who’s catching fire with Democratic voters and independents, it appears that you can just be anti-Trump,” Jamelle says. “A lot of voters want people in office who kind of represent their anger and disgust at the president, and [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez does that. I’m not sure every Democrat running will adopt her particular kinds of policy positions, but I think many of the Democrats running will adopt her, I think, sincere anger, but it’s also performed anger at the president, and at the Republican Party.”

It’s not just the anger. When Ocasio-Cortez mentioned raising taxes really significantly, all of a sudden we saw Julián Castro agree on George Stephanopoulos’ program.

“Oh, I can support folks at the top paying their fair share,” he said.

To me, this feels like a fundamental shift—like a conversation that we wouldn’t be having in America four or eight years ago. And Jamelle agrees.

“I think smart Democratic presidential aspirants, if they’re paying attention to this, will take it as confirmation that they can propose things that may have been considered out of the mainstream even five years ago and not only will voters and observers take them seriously, there may be a course of defense from their sides, saying, ‘No, in fact, this is not an unreasonable thing and that we should think seriously about it and we should pursue it.’ ”

It seems like Democrats at all levels are becoming more progressive. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state and somewhat of an outside candidate, has made climate change and the environment a central part of his presidential campaign. Cory Booker is proposing a policy called “baby bonds,” which would give every single American child born after the policy is passed a few thousand dollars in savings bonds. It would be money they can reclaim at age 18 and would provide a nest egg for those just starting out in life—like a kind of Social Security for young people.

These kinds of unapologetically liberal policies seem new to me, but Jamelle says there are lessons from history about these kinds of broad structural changes.

“It is new in the sense that there is a turning away from the kind of timidity of Democratic politicians of the ’90s and the 2000s,” he says. “You have a generation of politicians who came of age in an era of Republican ascendance. On the oldest side of this are people who won office in the late ’70s, who saw the Reagan revolution, who saw Bush win, who saw Clinton adjust to the realities of that, who saw openly liberal Democrats like Mondale and Dukakis lose in major ways, so they kind of experienced a real backlash against liberalism and adjusted accordingly and met the challenge by essentially adopting the rhetorical stylings and basic assumptions of conservative governance.”

He continues: “And then you have a generation of Democrats who entered politics 20 years later, or 25 years later, when Republicans still held power, but didn’t hold the same kind of monopoly on political discourse. They saw the collapse of the Bush administration, the backlash to Obama’s conciliatory rhetoric, and decided that the response to this is to just be openly and unapologetically liberal. Bernie Sanders’ campaign demonstrated that one can embrace big universal policies and not see a particular backlash. All of those things put together, it does shape the public conversation in a new way.”