The Blog

Will Obama Face a Serious Democratic Challenger in 2012?

3:19 PM, Dec 6, 2010 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers