Obama faces no Democrat challenger

Published 9:46 am Wednesday, July 6, 2011

by Rhodes Cook

In his column in “The Wall Street Journal” on June 23, Republican strategist Karl Rove explained all the reasons why he thought President Barack Obama would likely lose his re-election bid in 2012.

Rove made a compelling case: a sour economy that he doubts will improve much before next November; a Democratic base showing signs of dissatisfaction with Obama; a sharp decline in support for the president since 2008 among key voting groups such as independents and seniors; and a strategic blunder by Obama in too soon shedding the mantle of president to assume the guise of money-grubbing presidential candidate.

And Rove’s analysis did not include growing dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of wars in the Middle East, the political ramifications of high gas prices and a falling presidential approval rating that, in a late June Gallup Poll, had plunged to 43 percent.

Yet amidst all this carnage, there is a big asset in Obama’s favor that has long been associated with presidents who successfully win re-election — a clear path to renomination.

For some time now there has been a political rule of thumb. Presidents with little or no opposition in their party’s presidential primaries go on to win re-election, while those who must weather a significant primary challenge are defeated in the fall election.

At this point, there are no signs of a Democratic primary challenge to Obama.

If there was, he would have re-election problems of the first magnitude. For if a president has trouble uniting his own party, how can he successfully reach out to independents and voters from the other party in the fall? The answer over the last century has been that he can’t.

Dealing with a major primary challenge can be a debilitating exercise for a president. They are expensive, they divert the White House’s attention, and they subject the incumbent to months and months of criticism from within his own “political family.” The result is that a significant primary contest substantially increases the president’s electoral vulnerability.

Five that lost

Since the advent of presidential primaries a century ago, five presidents have lost their bids for another term. They were William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald R. Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. To varying degrees, all five had to survive significant primary contests to make it to the general election, where, in a weakened condition, they lost.

Of the five, only Hoover would probably have been defeated whether he had a primary challenge or not. The Depression was under way in 1932, and Hoover caught the blame for it.

However, it is arguable whether the other four could have won re-election if they had not first been bloodied in their battle for renomination. Taft, in 1912, was running in the midst of a strong Republican presidential era and might have been able to win another term had he not first been smacked around like a piñata by former President Theodore Roosevelt in the GOP primaries. Roosevelt’s subsequent decision to lead a third party in the fall of 1912 sealed Taft’s fate and Woodrow Wilson’s election.

More than a half century later, Gerald Ford suffered from a severe case of guilt by association. He was the appointed, unelected vice president of Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace in the wake of the Watergate crisis. Ford did not command the deference within the party that elected presidents often do and drew a stiff primary challenge in 1976 from the conservative favorite, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. It was a contest that Ford barely survived. Still, the nation was in the midst of another Republican presidential era, and Ford fell only two percentage points short of defeating Democrat Jimmy Carter that fall. Without the primary challenge from Reagan, Ford just might have won.

Four years later, Carter had a passel of problems of his own — a sense of national malaise, the “misery index,” the Iranian hostage crisis and a primary challenge from the leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Sen. Edward Kennedy. Yet even with all this, polls throughout much of the fall of 1980 showed Carter running neck and neck with Reagan, the Republican nominee. It was not until the final days of the campaign that the contest broke decisively in Reagan’s favor.

George H.W. Bush was the last president to lose a re-election bid. He drew a “mid-level” primary challenge in 1992 from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. The latter failed to beat Bush in a single primary, but drew nearly 40 percent of the vote in the closely watched, first-in-the-nation balloting in New Hampshire. The surprising result revealed GOP unhappiness with Bush for breaking his 1988 “no new taxes” pledge as well as dissatisfaction with his inability to handle the nation’s economic downturn.

Bush’s re-election chances did not fade sharply until wealthy Texas businessman Ross Perot entered the race as an independent, splitting the Republican base and helping to elect Democrat Bill Clinton.

RHODES COOK is a senior columnist who contributes articles and essays on American campaign and election politics to Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a non-partisan political analysis web site. He can be reached at rhodescook@aol.com.