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Will Obama Face a Serious Democratic Challenger in 2012?

3:19 PM, Dec 6, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Recently, Ed Kilgore took to the pages of the New Republic to say that Obama couldn't be successfully primaried. Writes Kilgore: 

[I]n the aftermath of this month's "shellacking," mischief-making pundits have seized on a couple of polls to burnish their narrative: One is from AP/KN in late October, showing that 47 percent of Democrats want the president to be challenged by another Democrat in 2012 (with 51 percent opposed); and one came from McClatchey/Marist just before Thanksgiving, showing 45 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favoring a primary challenge (with 46 percent opposed).

Sounds pretty dangerous for Obama, right? Well no. For a substantive primary challenge to occur, a coherent bloc of Democratic voters—whether liberal or moderate—would have to sour on Obama and coalesce behind another candidate in such a way that threatens the president's hold over his base. There's just no sign of that happening. For instance, the very same AP/KN poll shows that three-quarters of Democrats want to see the president re-elected; i.e., they're not really discontented with Obama and they just like the idea of a primary that gives them options. Likewise, the McClatchy/Marist survey doesn't show a single bloc fed up with Obama and preparing to bolt for a latter-day Howard Dean: Given a choice of hypothetical challenges, 39 percent of Democrats and leaners preferred a candidate from the left of the president, and 40 percent a candidate from the right.

Kilgore goes on to suggest other factors that would impede a serious primary challenge: Obama's continued high approval among self-identified Democrats, the racial politics of the Democratic Party (especially Obama's strong support from African-Americans), the lack of a "galvanizing" issue, and the absence of a potentially strong primary challenger.

My "off the cuff" reaction to this is that there is a theoretical angle for a would-be challenger; Kilgore underestimates just how internally divided his party is, and he places too much emphasis on the President's current standing when what matters is how he is faring in about a year. I could envision a peculiar left-right coalition where a non-urban liberal claims to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," but has a kind of cultural connection to the Hillary Clinton voters in the Midwest and Appalachian regions. Such a candidate could in theory have an opportunity if Obama's numbers drop below 40% next year.  

The key phrase, however, is "in theory." Several of Kilgore's points are unpersuasive, but his final one -- "Who Would Run?" -- strikes me as decisive. While a liberal/Jacksonian coalition is possible in theory, in practice I just do not see anybody out there right now who could actually stitch it together. I think it is possible for a primary challenger to embarass the president by keeping him, say, under 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, but I think there is zero chance Obama will not win the nomination, and there is essentially zero chance he'll have to go the distance.

Historically, the sole example of a serious primary challenge against a Democratic incumbent president in the modern era (i.e. since the reforms of the McGovern-Fraser Commission) was Ted Kennedy's move against Jimmy Carter in 1980. If Kennedy had not run such a lackluster campaign, and if the Iranian hostage situation had not exploded across the headlines, he indeed might have been able to deny Carter renomination. But I just don't think that is a very good historical comparison for 2012. Kennedy's last name gave him cachet and mystique that are just not duplicated in the Democraticy party of the 21st century. There is nobody even approaching the Kennedy stature out there right now.

Beyond that, Carter was in a uniquely weak position vis-à-vis his own party in 1980. His nomination in 1976 depended heavily on his mastery of the primary and caucus system, which at that point was still quite new and not well understood. His general election victory (seen here in red) hinged largely on uniting his native South with relatively weak hauls from the major urban centers, as Carter was the first non-incumbent Democrat from Dixie to win the White House since James K. Polk in 1844. But of course by this point the South already had one foot out of the Democratic coalition, having gone mostly against Hubert Humphrey in 1968 then totally against George McGovern in 1972, and it eventually abandoned Carter for Ronald Reagan. In other words, Carter's base within his own party was pretty weak, and his job approval ratings among Democrats tended to be fairly anemic during his entire term. For instance, right now Obama has 81 percent approval among Democrats, according to Gallup; at the same point in his presidency, Carter registered just 62 percent with Democrats. 

So, I just don't think the Kennedy-Carter model fits very well in the case of 2012. The 44th president is in a much stronger position than Carter was with his own party, and certainly does not have to fear somebody whose last name is Kennedy. On the Republican side, the sole example of a serious challenger to a Republican president was the Ford-Reagan battle of 1976, but this also strains credulity as a legitimate parallel to 2008.  After all, Reagan had already established himself as a nationwide Republican representative of conservatives, and Ford was unelected. So, in nearly 40 years of the modern nominating process in which primaries dominate the field, there is no example that suggests Obama could get a serious challenger.

But of course a lot depends on how we define Kilgore's phrase "serious challenger." Somebody who can go the distance and conceivably take the nomination away from Obama? I'd say no. Somebody who could keep Obama under 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, just as Pat Buchanan did against George H. W. Bush in 1992? That is quite possible, in my judgment. And while such an outcome would not amount to a serious threat to Obama's renomination, it would do serious damage to his political standing.

And to that point I would say: watch how Obama handles the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The New York Times and its liberal allies are frustrated right now with the way Obama is handling the tax cut negotiations, but if there is a "galvanizing issue" that could launch a primary bid against the president, my money is that it would involve foreign rather than domestic affairs. I have maintained for a while that the number one reason Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 is because he was the only serious candidate in the 2008 Democratic field not to have supported the Iraq War, and for him to continue his current policies with these two conflicts courts danger with the substantial Bryan-Wallace-McGovern peace faction within his own party. 

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