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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Primarying” Barack Obama–Some Relevant History

Though he called it “unlikely,” the New York Times Magazine‘s Matt Bai unleashed the idea this weekend that disgruntled progressives might support a primary challenge to President Barack Obama in 2012, even suggesting that Dr. Howard Dean could be positioning himself to make the challenge himself.
It’s natural for pro-Obama Democrats to recoil from even discussing the possibility of the President being “primaried,” but I’d argue it’s healthier for everyone to pull the idea right out of the closet and examine it closely, beginning with the recent history of such challenges.
* Four of the last eight presidents (Bush 41, Carter, Ford and Johnson) prior to Obama faced serious primary challenges in their re-election campaigns.
* In all four cases, the challengers (McCarthy in 1968, Reagan in 1976, Kennedy in 1980 and Buchanan in 1992) ran on the implicit or explicit message that the incumbent had betrayed his party base. In all four cases, the incumbent was struggling in the polls to some extent, amidst shaky economic conditions (less LBJ than the others, though inflation was a big concern in 1968).
* In three of the four cases (all but Bush 41), the incumbent’s party had done very poorly in the prior midterm election.
* All four challenges ultimately failed to secure the party nomination.
* The opposition party–twice Democrats, twice Republicans–won all four general elections.
Suffice it to say that primary challenges to sitting presidents are more common than many people realize, but never, in recent history, successful in any way other than chastening party leaders via general election defeat.
There is a fifth president whose re-election campaign might well be examined in this context: one Richard M. Nixon. He, too was having some trouble in the polls going into 1972. He rather notably was presiding over a very unpopular war, and the economy was sufficiently troubled that he actually imposed wage and price controls. His party had a very disappointing showing in the 1970 midterms. And he faced intraparty insurgencies coming from two different directions: antiwar Republicans (yes, there were some back then) who ultimately produced a candidate, Rep. Pete McCloskey of CA; and conservatives, some of whose leaders (including William F. Buckley, Jr.) signed a statement “suspending” their support for Nixon in 1971. Conservatives, too, produced a sittling member of Congress willing to take on the incumbent, Rep. John Ashbrook of OH.
Ultimately, of course, Nixon brushed aside these intraparty challenges with ease, and won the general election by a huge 49-state landslide, in no small part because of divisions and weaknesses in the Democratic party. (Yes, the excesses of his reelection campaign contributed to his rapid fall from grace and forced resignation in 1974, but no one really thinks that the crimes and misdemeanors we now know collectively as “Watergate” won him re-election.)
My point in mentioning Nixon is to note that primary challenges don’t necessarily doom incumbents, and that developments in the opposing party can have a very large impact on the fate of struggling incumbents.
Now, I personally doubt that any serious primary challenge to Barack Obama will ultimately develop, if only because it would be exceptionally difficult to mobilize a revolt of “the party base” against the first African-American president. Obama will also likely benefit from the same phenomenon that kept Bill Clinton from being challenge for re-election in 1996: the desire for a united front against a militantly vicious GOP. And lest we forget, there’s always the strong possibility that by this time two years from now, the war in Afghanistan could be winding down, the economy could be reviving, health care reforms could be very popular, and Republicans could be gearing up for a fratricidal nomination battle of their own.
But Democrats might as well talk through the consequences of a primary challenge to Obama while it’s an abstract proposition rather than an imminent threat. The precedents for potential insurgents aren’t very encouraging.

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