Almost any embattled President facing re-election is sure to stir rumors of a primary challenge. Of the past five Presidents before Obama we have seen two face either serious or at least rumored serious primary challenges.
Jimmy Carter in 1979 saw Democratic legend Ted Kennedy launch a primary challenge that at least one commentator thinks came within one major event—either the Iran hostage crisis or Kennedy’s own disastrous answer to the “why are you running for President” question—of succeeding.
George H.W. Bush drew a challenge from his right by Pat Buchanan that, while ultimately not nearly as successful in terms of winning primaries as Kennedy’s challenge to Carter 12 years earlier, was at least legitimate in terms of fundraising and a near-win for Buchanan in New Hampshire.
So when I was asked recently about the possibility of a primary challenge to President Obama, it cause me real pause. Ordinarily it’s the sort of question to dismiss out of hand, but in this environment, it at least merits some thought.
Let’s look, then, at three criteria that may help us evaluate whether a President is likely to face a serious primary challenge.
1) Has the President “lost” his party, or at least a significant part of it?
Jimmy Carter, as an openly religious southerner, was never going to be the liberal darling that Ted Kennedy was. And by 1979 the woes of stagflation and the energy crisis had many Democrats wondering if there wasn’t a better choice. But, Carter was saved in no small part by the fact that much of labor stuck with him, joining a still existent Southern Democratic base in supporting his re-nomination.
George H.W. Bush was never well liked by social or many fiscal conservatives, especially those who were veterans of the 1980 primaries. Coupling that with his budget deal that increased taxes and broke his “read my lips” pledge left a number of Republicans looking for alternatives.
In both of those cases, the incumbent’s problem was that he broke with his own party’s orthodoxy on key decisions and policies.
In contrast, the Obama Administration has delivered for most of the liberal groups who supported him. He has given liberals the health care act they’ve craved since Truman’s Fair Deal, he has given hand outs to big labor in both the private and public sectors, he has massively expanded the scope and intensity of environmental regulations, and he has at least begun the process of withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s no surprise that while Obama’s overall job approval has fallen to 43% in a recent CBS News poll with only 37% approval among Independents, more than three-quarters (78%) of Democrats still think he’s doing a good job.
2) Is there an issue or issues on which a challenger can clearly get to the (right/left) of the incumbent?
While open primary contests are sometimes won by more “centrist” candidates who appeal to the party establishment more than they do to activists, it is difficult to use this strategy when challenging an incumbent President. The apparatus of the party establishment will have been under the incumbent’s control for four years and the risks of bucking the boss are almost always higher than the perceived rewards.
Jimmy Carter had enacted what were, for the time, relatively moderate policies with little divergence from the policies of Nixon or Ford. Coupled with the fact that Ted Kennedy had automatic credibility with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, this gave Kennedy the potential opening he needed for a challenge.
George H.W. Bush had run in 1980 against Reagan as a “centrist” in the primary and had governed for his first terms as a compromiser willing to work with rather than against the Democratic Congress. Both of these factors gave a populist-conservative like Buchanan the opportunity to get to Bush’s right.
As I noted above, there is not much room to Barack Obama’s left. While some at the very fringe of the Democratic Party may be upset that he hasn’t gone even further, his policies have been overwhelmingly liberal. The most likely argument against Obama, on the economy, is challenging for a Democrat because the most likely set of alternative policies will look more like conservative ideas than liberal ones.
3) Is there a high-profile alternative to wage a primary campaign?
Unlike open Presidential primaries, it is very difficult for a primary challenger to build the kind of name ID, organization, or fundraising base that would be required to overcome an incumbent President. So much of the money and support is already committed to the incumbent that a challenger needs a large natural base of support to be able to begin a serious campaign.
Ted Kennedy is probably the ultimate example of the type of candidate who can raise a serious primary challenge to an incumbent President. Kennedy had the benefits of the Kennedy name, the potential to fundraise from a national liberal network, and almost universal name ID.
Pat Buchanan was less well positioned in this regard to challenge an incumbent President but he did have the advantage of a nationwide network of social and religious conservatives who could easily provide a grassroots and logistical base for his run.
The best-known Democrat alternative to Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is probably the least well positioned to run a primary effort against him. Recent CNN polling shows Clinton is much better liked than Obama (Clinton’s ratings are 69% favorable/26% unfavorable). She would also begin any primary campaign with an established network of support from her 2008 primary effort. But, she has spent the last four years as part of the Obama Administration and, perhaps more importantly, would almost certainly have to run against Obama from the center rather than the left.
As interesting as it is to consider, it’s unlikely that Barack Obama will face even a semi-serious contest for the Democratic nomination. He is just too well liked by his base and there are just not enough strong alternatives to see a scenario where a serious challenger can emerge.