The Ghosts of 2015

A bizarre moment from four years ago suggests a smarter way to watch the early phase of the 2020 presidential race.

Left and center photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images. Right photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. Scott Walker, Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush in 2015.
Scott Walker was a marquee speaker at the Jan. 24, 2015, Iowa Freedom Summit; Donald Trump was a side show. Jeb Bush was ascendant in the race but passed up the chance to speak there.
Photo illustration by Slate. Left and center photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images. Right photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images. Scott Walker, Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush in 2015.

We’re still 368 days away from the Iowa Caucus (Feb. 3, 2020), 532 days from the end of the Democratic National Convention (July 16, 2020), and a whopping 642 from Election Day (Nov. 3, 2020). It is understandable if you prefer to check out from the permanent campaign for at least a few more months.

At this point four years ago, after all, the Republican race had not yet become a full-on orgy of bombast: pre–exclamation mark Jeb Bush was the front-runner, Scott Walker the rising star, and Chris Christie a potential dark horse. Christie’s time near the top of the polls wouldn’t see spring; Walker would drop out by the end of summer; and Bush would go on to win … a grand total of zero nominating contests and three delegates, at a cost of about $53 million apiece.

So, sure, feel free to ignore the horse race for now. But if you look past the early jockeying and instead pay attention to the ideas and issues driving the conversation, you’ll be more prepared to understand where the party and its primary are heading—and who could be the nominee.

Consider the first major Republican cattle call of the 2016 cycle, the Iowa Freedom Summit, held in a Des Moines theater at the end of January 2015—roughly the same point we’re at in this presidential election cycle. Watching video of that event today is like opening a time capsule containing all the hints of what was in store for the GOP in the years to come. The daylong forum was hosted by Rep. Steve King, a man already infamous for fretting about the size of immigrants’ calves and who still talks approvingly of white nationalism. The conservative confab featured 10 of the eventual 17 GOP candidates, four future senior members of the Trump administration—and, as a bit of a sideshow, Donald Trump himself.

The celebrity businessman was still fine-tuning his act, but most of it was already in place, five months before he made his campaign official. In a rambling 20-minute speech, Trump suggested Barack Obama might be a double agent working with ISIS: “Our president is either grossly incompetent … or he has a completely different agenda than you want to know about, which could be possible.” He bashed the Affordable Care Act and called for its full repeal: “Everything about Obamacare was a lie; it was a filthy lie.” And he even tested out the xenophobic line that would become the centerpiece of his campaign launch—and arguably of his presidency:

I saw the other day on television people walking across the border—walking. The military is holding guns and people [are] just walking right in front, coming into our country. It is so terrible. It is so unfair. It is so incompetent. And we don’t have the best coming in; we have people who are criminals, we have people who are crooks. You can certainly have terrorists. You can certainly have Islamic terrorists. You can have anything coming across the border. We don’t do anything about it. So I would say, if I run—and if I win—I would certainly start by building a very, very powerful border.

Trump had a morning speaking slot, and the crowd wasn’t entirely sure at first how to react to what it was hearing. But nervous laughter slowly gave way to occasional cheers and, eventually, a standing ovation. “Somebody said that was the best ovation by far,” Trump would tell reporters moments after stepping off stage.

Although Trump was merely workshopping his pitch, the general message was hardly an outlier at the event. Ted Cruz, for one, trotted out a faith-based version of MAGA during his speech, urging the crowd “to believe again in the miracle of America.” The Texas senator went on to rail against “the president’s unconstitutional amnesty” and half-jokingly suggest that the IRS should be shuttered and its entire staff redeployed to the southern border. Ben Carson, likewise, said that the next president should “seal that border within the year.” And Rick Perry, the outgoing Texas governor who four years earlier made the mistake of chastising his own party for its hard-line immigration views, sounded a similar note that predated Trump’s current go-it-alone pledge: “If Washington refuses to secure the border, Texas will.” This rhetoric was flaring up just a little more than a year after the GOP released its postmortem from its 2012 defeat declaring that “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

Accordingly, what do the early days of 2019 foreshadow about the 2020 Democratic primary? Spotting major themes is easier in hindsight, but already we’ve seen Medicare for all and a Green New Deal emerge as early litmus tests on the left. As far as policy proposals go, both of those can and do mean different things to different candidates, and as Kamala Harris made clear this week, they can even mean different things to the same candidate. But as Yascha Mounk has pointed out in Slate, the Democratic message that matters to the most voters won’t be the policy specifics but instead the worldview those policies advance.

For Republicans, a hard-line anti-immigrant position in 2015 metastasized into America First nationalism in 2016. It’s easy to imagine something similar happening for Democrats this time around, whereby an idea that seems extreme now in relation to mainstream orthodoxy—say an end to private insurance, a federal jobs guarantee, or something else entirely—becomes shorthand for the party’s larger worldview. Should that happen, it will favor those who can claim they owned that idea from the very start. That won’t guarantee a primary victory, but it will impress voters. This early in the nominating contest, then, it’s worth paying more attention to those candidates who are leading the conversations that go on the longest and the loudest, and less to those who are leading in the polls at a given moment.

Consider, for instance, Trump’s response when asked after his Iowa speech what advice he had for the day’s other speakers. “My advice to them,” he said, “is to talk about how we make our country great again—and they’re not talking about that.” On that position, at least, Trump had it all figured out.