Why History Suggests Obama Should Face A Primary Challenge

Will Barack Obama face a primary challenge?  If history is an accurate guide – a big if for reasons I discuss below – he should. Dating back to 1948, incumbent presidents with a combination of low approval ratings against the backdrop of poor economic conditions have almost always been challenged for their party’s nomination.  In the table below, I present every post-W.W. II  incumbents’ approval rating and the misery index (a combination of the inflation and unemployment rate) at the time when a candidate announced, or might be expected to announce a challenge to the sitting president.  For ease of interpretation I’ve arrayed them in descending order, based on the misery index.

 President and Year of Reelection  Gallup Approval  Misery Index At Time of Convention or Announced Challenged  Challenged for Nomination?
Carter – 1980 51% (December 1979)


Ford -1976 41% (November, 1975)


Truman – 1948 40% (June, 1948)


Obama – 2012 40% Current


Reagan – 1984 52% (Jan.1984)


Bush I -1992 52.2% (December 1991)


Nixon – 1972 49% (Jan. 1972)


Clinton -1996 42% (Jan. 1996)


Bush II – 2004 49% (Jan. 2004)


LBJ 1964 74% (June 1964)


Eisenhower 1956 73% (June 1956)



*In January 1948 Henry Wallace bolted the Democratic Party to run as a Progressive, while Strom Thurmond campaigned as 3rd party candidate after the Democratic Convention.

This is a relatively simple but I think effective gauge of an incumbent’s perceived vulnerability.  To be sure, there are a couple of apparent anomalies.  Jimmy Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy, and Jerry Brown, despite approval ratings at the start of the election year above 50%.  But that is misleading – Carter’s approval rating was temporarily buoyed by the rally-round-the-flag effect caused by the Iranian takeover of the American embassy in November, 1979.  Prior to that event, and during the period Kennedy was deciding whether to run, Carter’s approval ratings were mired in the 30% range.

The other apparent outlier is Ronald Reagan, who faced no significant internal challenge in 1984 despite a misery index above 12.  However, as indicated by his relatively high approval ratings, Reagan was benefiting from the comparison with the conditions he had inherited from his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who saw the misery index peak at above 20 when he left office. The subsequent decline in the index over the next four years, particularly in inflation because of Fed’s tight money policy, bolstered Reagan’s approval ratings and scared away any challenge.

Based on the historical comparison, then, it appears that Obama’s current approval rating, coupled with a double-digit misery index should invite a primary challenge.  If so, one would expect it to be announced no later than December. But will anyone step up to the plate?  Despite the usual rumors, no credible candidate appears on the horizon as yet.  I’ve already speculated about a Clinton challenge, and what it might take to trigger it.  But it might be more helpful to consider why, despite the historical pattern, Obama might not face a challenge.  I can think of at least three reasons.

1. Money.  Obama smashed all fundraising records his last time around (and in the process likely put the nail in the coffin of public campaign financing).   Early reports show that he hasn’t lost the Midas touch; his second quarter earnings, in conjunction with contributions to the DNC, reached $86 million, shattering all records for this time period before an election.  It’s hard to see how an opponent could match that.

2. Race.  If I heard it once from you, I heard it a thousand times: that African-Americans in particular, but also many other Democrats, would view a primary challenge as a “stab in the back” of the nation’s first black president.  For this reason, it would prove unusually divisive. No one wants to risk that controversy.

3. History. Look again at the table above. None of the four challenges to incumbent presidents succeeded, although two – those by Reagan in 1976 and Kennedy in 1980 – went all the way to the convention.  Nonetheless, if the historical record suggests a challenge is likely, it also tells us that such a challenge won’t succeed. So why bother?

To these I might add a fourth reason: the Democrats lack a candidate with the stature of a Kennedy or Reagan to take on Obama.  Sure, there are some progressives, such as Dennis Kucinich who could carry the torch for the Left, but they lack the political clout to seriously challenge the President.  So who does that leave? Al Gore?  He has name recognition, but may be too tarnished by personal issues at this point.  Andrew Cuomo?  Too young and inexperienced.  Howard Dean?  Been there, done that.   Indeed, in considering likely candidates, one is struck by just how weak the Democrat Party lineup is at this stage.  I can’t think of a single Democratic politician with the stature, name recognition and built in support to take on an incumbent whose record in most years would invite such a challenge.

Can you?


  1. Bob – I don’t see Schumer as having more than regional support, do you?

    Jack – Bloomberg would be intriguing, but is he a Democrat?

  2. Schumer doesn’t have a national profile — in truth, he barely has a profile here in the City (we never hear of him or from him, so …), so I doubt he’d “take” anywhere other than New York and the East Coast.

    Bloomberg, a Moderate Republican, has the disadvantage, if one can call it that, of being a billionaire. I also feel, while watching him give press conferences and such, that he doesn’t have the charisma to compete on a national stage. If one adds his (what some might call) grating voice to this lack of charisma, the combination, despite his political accomplishments, doesn’t exactly speak of Leadership or Strength, something I think people are desperately searching for in alternatives to Obama (Obama’s lack of leadership and strength the whole basis for this conversation of an alternative).

    Besides, Bloomberg is famously controlling and private, so I suspect a Presidential Race would be something of a nightmare for him, on that regard.

    The only viable alternative, I believe, is Hillary Clinton. National presence, political chops, already has 18 million votes in the bag from the 2008 Primary, respected on the world stage. I really can’t think of any other Democrat offering that kind of resume.

  3. Professor D refuses to give up on running Mrs. Clinton up the flagpole. Notice her name is missing in the last paragraph of his post. Nice head fake, Matt, but it doesn’t work. I agree that there isn’t a viable challenger.

    As for the Mayor, he is a billionaire quasi-Republican/quasi-Democrat who runs off as much as possible in his own airplane to Bermuda. The recent record for NYC Mayors with national ambitions is abysmal–see John V. Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani (neither as rich as the current Mayor (who is?), but both also quai-Republican/Democrats (no matter what Rudy said in his last effort).

    As for Chuck Schumer, he is a terrific inside-the-beltway operator and raises tons of money for the Democrats from rich people. Has anyone west of Buffalo or south of the southern tip of the Verrazano Bridge (Staten Island is only consistently Republican borough in the City) know of or care about him? I doubt it.

  4. Marty – Regarding the flagpole: wait until you read my next post responding to Nate Silver. You’ll be saluting for sure….

  5. Obviously Hillary…I just didn´t want to be the first one to say it….and then you did. I wish I were a fly on the wall in her private conversations to know if she is even considering it or it´s just my wishful thinking! Very frustrating 🙂

  6. sally wood evans, I mentioned Hillary in my Post! :^) Again, I find it hard to think of any other Democrat with her resume or current popular appeal. If there were to be a serious challenge to Obama, it’d have to come from her.

    Off to read Matthew’s new Post re: Nate Silver’s NY Times blathering.

  7. What about Evan Bayh? He is still holding on to his war chest. He never gave the money to the DNC during the last Governor’s race in IN.

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