The Obama Watch

No Primary Challenge to Obama

The talk may grow louder, but any challenge would be suicidal in its own right.

By 10.11.11

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Expect the talk of a primary challenge to Obama only to get louder. Pundits salivate at the prospect of an unusual twist, turning the foregone conclusion of Obama's nomination into a story. The problem is: A challenge won't happen.

Special elections are always overlooked before, and then over-analyzed after. However, even with those caveats, three recent ones were big -- and bad -- news for Democrats.

Democrats had every right to expect winning at least two of the three -- two Congressional races and the West Virginia gubernatorial -- and possibly winning them all. Instead they lost two and came dangerously close to losing all three.

In NV-2 looked competitive on paper -- they had a good candidate and a good track record of late in the state. In NY-09, they had a 3-1 party enrollment advantage. But in the end, they lost the first 36% to 58% and they lost the second 46% to 54%.

Only in Democrat-dominated West Virginia did they win, but just barely. The Republican fell less than 8,000 votes short of winning and held the Democrat to less than 50% of the vote. 

The reason these races are of such interest is because the biggest name in them, wasn't on the ballot. And such results, in places Democrats should have done better this year, only raise questions about next year when Obama's name will be on the ballot. Or if it might not be. 

It didn't take these races to start the talk that Obama could be "primaried." A late August CNN/ORC International poll (released 8/29) started the rumor ripple by reporting that 27% of Democrats had responded the party should nominate someone other than Obama.

Even a liberal press can't resist a story, especially one where none existed before. Suddenly having a contested nomination on the Democratic side is irresistible fodder. 

The problem around such speculation is that there is virtually no chance it happens. To understand why, look back at the last time a serious primary challenge to an incumbent president occurred.

In 1980, Kennedy challenged Carter. Carter won the nomination, but lost in a landslide to Reagan. In many Democratic circles, the damage had already been done to Carter and as a result, damage was done to Kennedy as well.

That challenge illustrates many lessons. 

First, primary challengers to incumbent presidents don't win. That's why primary challenges rarely happen. Not only didn't Kennedy win in 1980, McCarthy didn't in 1968, and Roosevelt didn't in 1912. Admittedly, Reagan came close against Ford in 1976, but even Reagan didn't disprove the rule.

The reason is that the two major parties have too much invested in an incumbent president. Incumbents rarely lose -- only Bush, Carter, Ford, Hoover, and Taft in the last century. To have such an advantage in a run for the nation's highest office is hard to concede. 

And the last people to concede it and renounce their party's president are the party faithful who vote in the primaries. However, such is not the case with the electorate at large. So those incumbents who are challenged seriously, often don't win in November -- Taft in 1912, Ford in 1976, and Carter in 1980.

Inevitably the blame for such defeats is often given to the primary challenger. They are seen as having weakened the incumbent -- providing lines of attack to the other party, diverting scarce party contributions, and splitting the party when it needed unity more than ever. 

For that reason, the challenger often loses more than just the race, he hurts his own political future. Roosevelt never regained the Republican throne, despite overwhelming earlier popularity. Kennedy spent years in the Senate rebuilding his reputation as an able legislator. 

Again, Reagan is the only exception -- gaining the nomination just four years later -- but Watergate was the reason: Republicans had never nominated Ford, let alone elected him, to the vice presidency or the presidency.

Few are willing to embody the adage: He who wields the sword, seldom wears the crown. That limits greatly the field of credible challengers in the first place.

Finally, from what angle would an Obama challenger run? It is inconceivable that it would be from the right -- there is no national conservative base left in the Democratic Party. From the left? With the Tea Party's rise, liberals have to know that Obama is their only hope in this election. 

Finally, the Kennedy challenge is particularly instructive in another way. Its wounds were not just inflicted on the candidates or the party elite, but the party itself. The challenge by a Northeast liberal to a Southern conservative was something many southerners never forgot. 

Kennedy's challenge to Carter is hardly the only reason Democrats have seen a continual erosion in the South, but it didn't help stem it either. 

Party establishments don't quickly forget such things, any more than they quickly forgive them. It is something any party -- particularly today's Democrats, who took a beating in 2010 -- will do everything they can to avoid.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.