Primary Challenges Create Incumbent Losers
If Joe Biden does gain a challenger in 2024, it does not bode well for his re-election chances
Interesting talk surfaced over the weekend that President Joe Biden may face a primary challenge in 2024. From the left, naturally:
Now, as Biden’s relationship with the left has come under strain, liberals are talking about treating him like former President Jimmy Carter instead — and mapping out a Democratic primary challenge in 2024.
“Will there be a progressive challenger? Yes,” said Jeff Weaver, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former presidential campaign manager.
Weaver stresses that he is not advocating for such a primary campaign. But the chatter about a left-wing challenge to Biden, which was virtually nonexistent weeks ago, has suddenly burst into public view in the wake of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) killing the president’s climate and social spending bill.
“He’s deeply unpopular. He’s old as shit. He’s largely been ineffective, unless we’re counting judges or whatever the hell inside-baseball scorecard we’re using. And I think he’ll probably get demolished in the midterms,” said Corbin Trent, co-founder of the progressive No Excuses PAC and former communications director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “People will smell opportunity, and D.C. is filled with people who want to be president.”
This of course is wonderful news for Republicans. The fact of the matter is that there have been seven times in the last 110 years that an incumbent President faced a primary challenge.1 In only two of those instances did that President’s party win the General Election:
1912: President William Howard Taft was challenged for the Republican nomination by his former mentor, former President Teddy Roosevelt. While Taft was easily re-nominated, it was a pyrrhic victory: Roosevelt wound up running as the Progressive/Bull Moose nominee for President. Taft wound up with only 8 electoral votes, finishing a very distant third to Democrat Woodrow Wilson
1948: President Harry Truman, going before his first Democratic convention, was challenged by segregationist Senator Richard Douglas of Georgia. Truman won easily, and did go on to re-election in a race that saw Truman defeat Republican New York Governor Thomas Dewey, Dixiecrat South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond2, and Progressive former Vice-President Henry Wallace.
1952: Truman was again challenged, this time by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kefauver defeated Truman in the New Hampshire primary, after which Truman withdrew from the race. The Democrats ultimately nominated Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who lost the general election to Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
1968: In a situation that looked similar to 1952, incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was challenged by a sitting U.S. Senator. Though Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy did not defeat Johnson in New Hampshire (Johnson won 49-42), his good showing led New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race. This forced Johnson’s hand and he decided to withdraw from the race. Kennedy was on his way to the nomination until he was shockingly assassinated in Los Angeles that June. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey ultimately won the nomination and lost the election to former Vice-President Richard Nixon.
1972: This time it was President Nixon who was being challenged. Oddly, Nixon was being challenged from the left by Congressman Pete McCloskey3 of California and from the right by Congressman John Ashbrook of Ohio. Nixon easily dispatched with both men and then went on to easily crush Senator George McGovern in the General Election
1976: President Gerald Ford, facing primary voters for the first time, had a knockdown, drag-out primary battle against former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford didn’t cinch the nomination until the convention (and, arguably, only because Reagan selected moderate Democratic Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his running mate. Ford narrowly lost the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
1980: For the fourth election in a row the incumbent faced a challenger. This time, President Carter faced Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and California Governor Jerry Brown. Though the delegate totals weren’t particularly close, Kennedy won a number of primaries and caucuses throughout the process. Carter went onto lose to Reagan in the general election.
1992: President George Bush was challenged in the primary by Pat Buchanan in the first of his three Presidential runs4, who was running to the right of Bush on cultural war issues. Buchanan did not win a single primary, but became enough of a distraction to Bush that he got a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention that became the famous/infamous “culture war speech.” Bush went on to lose the election to Bill Clinton.5
2020: President Donald Trump faced three challengers in the Republican Presidential Primaries. Though in other circumstances former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and former Congressman Joe Walsh would have been credible and formidable, neither really gained much traction against Trump. Nevertheless, Trump did ultimately lose the election to Biden that fall.
What have we learned from reviewing these elections? In many situations, the incumbent President faces a challenger under two specific circumstances: national concern with domestic policy and a vocal group within the President’s party that are not supportive of what the current regime’s plans are. Perhaps they are too timid, as Biden has been accused of. Perhaps they have strayed too far from party and constitutional orthodoxy, as with Trump.
But it’s clear that, as of right now, Biden faces both of these situations and that makes him somewhat vulnerable.
But he won’t be vulnerable during the Democratic nominating process. The Politico piece cites potential candidates like former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson, or businessman Joe Sanberg6. That’s hardly a murderer’s row of challengers to the sitting President.
It will be interesting to see if a challenger of any importance emerges to take on Biden. That, more than anything else, will be a telling indicator of Biden’s chances for re-election.
We’re talking about serious challengers here. Not some of these random guys who run for President every year or just announce that they are going to run without doing anything. Politics1 already lists 13 Democrats running for President not named Joe Biden. Nobody thinks that William Gailey or self-professed UFO oracle Alix Toulme are going to gain traction.
Yes, that Strom Thurmond.
McCloskey eventually becoming a Democrat, but not until 2007.
When Buchanan won the Reform Party nomination in 2000, he actually finished second in aggregate primary voting. Finishing first? Donald Trump.
Arguable, Bush lost more because of independent Ross Perot than anything Buchanan did.
Dennis Kucinich would be a more credible candidate, and that’s a guy who’s lost two Presidential elections, got redistricted out of Congress, lost a run for Governor, and lost a run for Mayor of Cleveland. He has the free time.