Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I agree with everything Matt Yglesias says about how silly the idea of an Evan Bayh challenge to Barack Obama would be for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2012.  Obama is overall fairly popular, and he's very popular among Democrats, and he's well positioned pretty much square in the middle of the Democrats, as far as ideology is concerned.  Bayh is a nobody who occupies a terrible place on the ideological spectrum and has, really, pretty much nothing to run on

On the history, however, Yglesias says:
No incumbent president has ever been defeated in a primary. And the only “close calls” came in a tightly bunched historical period (1968, 1976, 1980) characterized by substantial transformation of the regional bases of the major political parties.
I'm not sure what he means by "in a primary."  If he means "denied renomination by his party when he wanted the nomination," then it's not true.  Johnson in 1968 is a hard case -- he dropped out before it could be tested, but it's fairly likely he would have been renominated.  But it's typical of the pre-1972 situation, when it was difficult to tell who the "real" candidates might be.  Truman in 1952 and Wilson in 1920 probably wanted renomination, but weren't going to get it.  I'm not much of an expert on the 19th century process, but there are several such cases back then.

Of course, that was before primary elections, and the Truman, Wilson, and Johnson cases were before the current process was implemented in 1972.  After that, it is true that no incumbent has been defeated: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush were all renominated, with only two as close cases.  But Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all won landslides; of course they were renominated!  The question is what would happen should Obama look like a loser in November.  I'd say that George W. Bush is also not relevant here; even though he wound up winning a close race, he was pretty popular a year before the election, when choices would have to be made.

That leaves the three presidents since the modern nomination began who were renominated and then defeated: Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush.  Ford and Carter were seriously challenged, but Bush was not (although fringe candidate Pat Buchanan did run a real campaign, albeit without ever threatening Bush's renomination).  That history would suggest that an unpopular president stands a significant risk of a serious challenge.

On the other hand...the two serious challenges took place early in the reformed process, before party elites had fully figured out how to control the system.  Moreover, in both cases the challenge came from a long-acknowledged leader of the party; the only comparable figure in the Democratic Party today is the Secretary of State in Obama's own administration.  Both of those challenges also came from the ideological extreme (which is apt to feel betrayed by any president because the nomination process pushes candidates to the extremes while the general election and governing pushes them to the center).

So as I said at the top, anyone who thinks Evan Bayh is a nomination threat to Obama is nuts.  But denying a sitting president renomination isn't quite as historically far-fetched as Yglesias believes.  If a double-dip recession brings unemployment to over 12%, I wouldn't be certain that Obama will be the Democratic candidate in 2012 (I think he would be, but I wouldn't be certain).  But it ain't gonna be Evan Bayh.


  1. The one Democrat who would have instant credibility as an Obama challenger is ensconced at Foggy Bottom. It's hard (though not impossible) for me to imagine her stepping down for such a race. Biden seems to be a loyalist. John Edwards is out for obvious reasons. Howard Dean could do well in some caucuses, but not with a wider electorate. Ditto for Dennis Kucinich. I'm not sure who that leaves as a potential challenger.

    Of course, Obama's support among black voters would be a very formidable obstacle to any challenger.

  2. Richard,

    You're forgetting two heavyweights: John Kerry, and Al Gore. Gore's pretty well positioned, if Obama's looking like Carter did in early 1979. But it's worth pointing out that Obama hasn't done anything to make me think he'll look like Carter in 1979 -- lefty frustration notwithstanding, I think he's in solid shape with major party groups, although he really should find something for labor fairly soon.

  3. You're right about Gore -- he's universally known, widely admired among Democratic activists, and doesn't seem to be close to Obama personally. Kerry doesn't have the same reservoir of good will. I don't know about their personal relationship, but Kerry appears to be pretty loyal to Obama.

  4. Dick Gephardt is another Democrat with stature on that level, but while labor loves him, he doesn't have much of a constituency among other groups of liberal activists.

  5. Davis X. Machina sez:

    If Obama doesn't run again, a la Johnson, whomever gets nominated in his stead will be more conservative than any of the names mentioned above, probably as conservative as Bayh, because the immediate media narrative in the event of so unlikely an event will be "The Democrats tried moving left with the ultra-liberal Obama, and failed".

  6. DXM:

    That might be *a* media narrative, but it won't be the one that Democratic activists, insiders and affiliated interest groups will be listening to. There's no way that someone from the rightmost fringe of the party gets a presidential nomination.


    I think Gephardt has burned his bridges. I know that Dems who are players in the nomination process aren't exactly thrilled with Kerry, and the whole discussion is about an extremely unlikely event, but should there be room for a primary challenge and should Kerry step up, I think he'd be seen as a serious player.

    I'm sure we could each come up with a large list of people who could do a Buchanan-like challenge to him, also.


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