Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Can 2020 top this year? It’s hard to imagine another political year like 2019. With the turbulence in Washington culminating in the House of Representatives voting to impeach President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the bar has been set high if events are once again to have this dramatic an impact.
What are the key questions that will be answered in 2020? Here are five:
1) Who will emerge politically victorious from the impeachment trial of the President?
So far House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding back on sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, but assuming she does, the potential trial will be a huge milestone. Although there are few people who believe that the Senate will vote to remove the President from office, nobody is quite sure what the political fallout will be from this process. The aftermath of impeachment could have a major impact on the election.
Some argue that Democrats will suffer. If Senate Republicans vote to acquit the president, the GOP will surely gloat and dismiss the entire saga as a reflection of how far partisan Democrats are willing to go. Trump, according to this theory, will use impeachment to rally his base.
Others disagree. They point to how much Republicans have suffered in the era of the Trump presidency. The party was slammed in the 2018 midterm elections, a significant number of Republican congressmen will not seek reelection in 2020, and the president remains unpopular despite a strong economy. In this view, impeachment has exposed just how corrupt this administration has been and the revelations will loom large on the minds of swing-state voters when they go to the ballot box.
Then there are those who speculate that it won’t matter either way. In our short attention-span culture, the public will have moved on to other matters within a few months.
2) How far will President Trump go?
Even when impeachment ends, Trumpian chaos will not stop. As he has shown during the impeachment process, the prospect of political humiliation or a poor historical legacy does not dissuade him from disrupting institutions and appealing to the most extreme elements of the electorate.
After the Senate votes on impeachment, Trump is very likely to double down on his bad behavior. He will continue to use the office as a vehicle for personal gain and he will go after his opponents with hammer and tong.
We will inevitably see the most ruthless presidential campaign in American history, with the possibility of public policy and law enforcement being used as political weapons to help the incumbent.
How will this affect Democratic voters, suburban independents, or Republicans who love his style of politics? As has been the case since day one, President Trump’s unpredictable and outrageous actions will remain the central storyline of the coming year.
3) Will the economy stay strong and will the US avoid a foreign crisis?
One thing that Trump can’t fully control is the economy or international crises. So far, the president has benefited from low unemployment and a booming stock market. President Trump is expected to pull out about 4,000 troops from Afghanistan. With a strong economy in the US and relative calm overseas, a convincing argument can be made not to change horses in midstream.
But those conditions can change quickly. If the situation remains the same, this will offer the President his best shot at winning reelection even though his national approval ratings have remained low throughout his term.
But an economic downturn or a dangerous military confrontation could create the exact kind of instability that might cause independents to turn against Trump and possibly encourage some Republicans to stay home.
4) Which party will do best at turning out voters?
In a very polarized electorate, turnout is the name of the game. The party that can bring out the most voters in key swing states will win the election. Persuading voters to flip sides is less useful than convincing those who might stay home to vote.
While voter turnout certainly depends on the political candidates themselves, grassroots organization matters just as much. In 2020, both sides will have to organize strategic ground games prepared for the political battle of a lifetime. Right-wing organizations are ready to go. Many of them love what the President stands for, and many evangelical groups are pleased with Trump’s court appointments while corporations appreciate his push for deregulation and tax cuts.
But progressives are as strong as ever. Their numbers have swelled since Trump was inaugurated in 2017. National organizations like Indivisible and the March for Women have developed a formidable infrastructure that is ready to go in the fall.
Older groups like MoveOn.org are seasoned at politics and this time around have a new energy behind them. The Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns have generated passionate followings.
This election promises to be a battle royale at the grassroots level. The side that is better prepared might have the key to victory.
5) Will Democrats pick the right candidate?
Democrats have been trying to figure out what it means to be the most electable. Former Vice President Joe Biden has made this the main part of his appeal. He has argued to Democrats that whatever they think of his past or love about his Democratic opponents, he is the only one who can defeat the President in November. This matters more than anything else. And so far, he has shown that he has considerable appeal.
Whether it is because Democrats fear losing to Trump or because they appreciate Biden as the antithesis to Trump, Biden’s numbers have remained solid despite all the attacks and smears from the administration. Skeptics (including myself) must admit he has done better than expected.
Yet it remains unclear if he can win in November. Can Biden, who first became a US senator in the 1970s, survive in the smashmouth world of 2020? Can he work his way through disinformation campaigns and deep fake videos, character assassination from the President’s Twitter feed, and potential investigations from the Justice Department and still come out on top?
Progressives argue that it’s time for a change. The best bet, they say, is someone who can mobilize and inspire voters. A candidate who can draw the same level of grassroots support as Trump will be able to take on the GOP and ensure that the turnout is as high as possible — even if Obama-Trump voters don’t flip back and support the Democratic nominee.
In 2020, these are the sorts of questions that will determine who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years.