In a discussion yesterday on Facebook, I was linked up by Kevin Zeese to this interview given to The Nation by Russ Feingold, who as you may recall was defeated in November by Ron Johnson. The reaction of a couple of Zeese's friends was sharply negative because during the interview, Feingold stated his support for President Obama's renomination in 2012, or at least, his reluctance to support a primary campaign against him.
Zeese is a Green, and ran as such in 2006 for a Senate seat in Maryland- he of course lost or he'd be in the Senate right now instead of eventual winner Ben Cardin- and so are, to a large degree, Zeese's friends. They aren't Obama fans, viewing him as too conservative, and when I stated that Obama was not going to draw a serious primary challenger, I received a fierce denunciation from one person who proceeded to call me a "Reagan Democrat".
First, it must be said that this assertion, as liberal as I am, is not entirely off base. While today, knowing what I do, Ronald Reagan would never receive my vote, hindsight is 20/20. Had I been alive (I was born in 1985) and been eligible to vote in Reagan's election years of 1980 and 1984, I have to admit that Reagan would have gotten votes out of me on both occasions. On Election Day 1980, I imagine I'd have been mighty skeptical of incumbent Jimmy Carter's performance- the oil crisis, boycotting the Olympics, stagflation, the swimming rabbit- and would not have had all the information about the hostage crisis in Iran, which was dominating news at the time. As a result, I'd probably have booted him out. As for 1984... Walter Mondale. What a disaster he was. It wasn't that Reagan was particularly great or anything, merely that his opposition had imploded in front of him.
So I guess you could call me a Reagan Democrat. Or a Reagan Green- I identify more with the Green platform, but caucus Democratic for primarily strategic purposes. But you get the idea. Anyway. That established.
The point I was intending to make was not simply that Obama would not receive a serious primary challenge. My point- or as we should probably restate at this point, my hypothesis- was that Presidents just don't get seriously primaried. It's almost a perk of the office. You usually only really get one shot in your life at the White House, unless you are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Richard Nixon or Bush 41, in which you get two, or unless you are Ronald Reagan, in which you get three. You need to spend so much political capital, call in so many favors, and it is such a power struggle at that high level that even when you get to the top, it's a damn hard thing to stay there. If you go for it and lose, you may never get another shot. So unless you are drafted into the race, you have to keep your powder dry and wait for the most opportune possible moment.
When your party is in the White House, taking on the incumbent President, one-on-one, is not an opportune moment. At least, not if you would like to remain significantly involved in politics. God help you if you lose and the incumbent retains.
This is not to say incumbent Presidents don't get primary challengers. Just not good ones. That's the hypothesis, anyway.
But again, this is something that needs to be shown. It's not something people look at a lot, and it's really along the lines of conventional wisdom. I'd hate to look stupid.
So I need to back up my argument. What The Royal We must do is to examine all previous years in which an incumbent President has stood for re-election. Every President has either been a Vice President, Senator, House representative, Governor, Cabinet member (and Hoover's the only one that wasn't State or War/Defense) or an Army general, so you can't just grab a guy off the street and have him go 'But I AM serious!'. It's got to be someone of stature. Additional information is often needed to determine if someone is truly a threat (Nancy Pelosi would, for example, serve as a greater challenge to Obama than Laura Richardson, even though they're both House members from California), but generally this is what you're looking for.
1792: George Washington, who identified with no party, ran unopposed by either side and was in fact coaxed out of retiring to engage in the second term.
1800: John Adams, a Federalist, was the incumbent. He drew two primary opponents- Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, former ambassador to France, and John Jay, governor of New York. Pinckney became Adams' running mate.
1804: Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1812: James Madison, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1820: James Monroe, a Democratic-Republican, was the incumbent, and ran unopposed by either side.
1828: John Quincy Adams, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1832: Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1840: Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1852: Millard Fillmore, a Whig, was the incumbent. He had taken over after the death of Zachary Taylor, and historically, these Presidents have had a hard time gaining respect. He did draw opposition, and was in fact defeated for renomination by Army general Winfield Scott. Daniel Webster, a former Senator, a legendary one, in fact, also sought the nomination.
1856: Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, was the incumbent, and really, when the party's official campaign slogan became "Anybody But Pierce", he really should have bowed out and saved himself the embarrassment. He didn't. James Buchanan, who came in as ambassador to Great Britain, won the nomination and the White House. Also involved were Senators Stephen Douglas and Lewis Cass. Cass wasn't running- he had missed on his chance in 1848- but drew a few votes at the convention anyway.
1864: Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was basically unopposed for renomination. There was some initial question as to his re-electability, and a smattering of support for Army general Ulysses S. Grant, but the war turned in Lincoln's direction and the Grant issue was solved by taking Andrew Johnson as a running mate. We'll call it opposition, but you can't really call it serious, especially due to the fact that Lincoln would have crushed Grant anyway.
1868: Despite coming one vote away from being thrown out of office, Andrew Johnson, who again, had taken over after the death of Lincoln, still thought for some reason he could get renominated. 13 opponents begged to differ. 22 ballots were cast at the convention; Johnson never led or threatened to, and stopped getting voted for after ballot 18. Former House representative George Pendleton led early on; Army general Winfield Hancock and Senator Thomas Hendricks deadlocked late; former Governor Horatio Seymour became the compromise nominee.
1872: Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1884: Chester A. Arthur, a Republican, was the incumbent, and defeated by former Senator James G. Blaine. Two other Senators, George Edmunds and John Logan, also sought the nomination. Arthur, again, was an heir of a White House vacated by death, in this case James Garfield.
1888: Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was the incumbent. He was unopposed for renomination.
1892: Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, was the incumbent. He saw opposition by Governor William McKinley and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, but he had already taken his shot as the nominee in 1884 and lost, and by this time was easily defeatable by Harrison, especially because he was drafted into the race but did not run himself, and because McKinley had sucked up enough votes to kickstart his own 1896 election. Which was just as well; Blaine died in January 1893. It wasn't really serious opposition. More like showpiece opposition. These were the days where when you wanted someone else at the convention, you just went and voted like it, as opposed to the current practice of the nominee being hashed out well in advance and becoming nominated by acclimation.
1900: McKinley, now the Republican incumbent, was unopposed for renomination.
1904: Theodore Roosevelt, the latest ascendant President, was opposed by Senator Mark Hanna, but Hanna died prior to the convention and no additional opposition stepped up.
1912: This was the first year of primary elections, and two Republicans decided to take a run at William Howard Taft: former President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Robert LaFollette. Taft was Roosevelt's handpicked successor, so the fact that Roosevelt, who put him in, was trying to take him back out was, you could say, a slightly serious challenge. LaFollette was no slouch either, winning two of the first four primaries. Taft won a bitter nomination, leading to Roosevelt forming the Bull Moose Party and gaining 88 electoral votes to Taft's 8. Woodrow Wilson was perfectly happy watching the two cancel each other out and claiming the other 435.
1916: Wilson was unopposed for renomination.
1924: Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the incumbent. He had taken over for Warren Harding, and the party had no problem with him. LaFollette was in the mix, as was Senator Hiram Johnson, but both had already made unsuccessful runs and were never really in it.
1932: Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was the incumbent. Against the party's better judgment, and also because Hoover had a lockdown on the party, he was renominated without much debate and with only token opposition from obscure former Senator Joseph Irwin France. And boy did they pay for not finding someone else.
1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was the incumbent. His only challenger was Henry Breckenridge, who 20 years prior had been Assistant Secretary of War and in 1934 ran for a Senate seat in New York as part of the "Constitutionalist Party" but came in fifth, getting doubled up by the Communist. He got predictably smothered in the primaries.
1940: Roosevelt was always going to draw a challenge by virtue of being the guy that broke the then-unwritten rule of a two-term limit. In fact, some geared up on speculation that he wouldn't try it. In this case, former Postmaster General James Farley and Vice President John Nance Garner took their shots, and Senator Millard Tydings and Secretary of State Cordell Hull also drew votes at the convention, but Roosevelt, once confirmed that he would run, took them all out with no trouble.
1944: Roosevelt was unopposed this time.
1948: Harry Truman, a Democrat, did see a movement to drop him by party leaders who preferred Army general Dwight Eisenhower. When Eisenhower declined, though, Truman's renomination was assured. However, that didn't stop conventioneers from casting votes for Senators Richard Russell or eventual running mate Alben Barkley, or West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore from winning a favorite-son primary. Former Governor Paul McNutt and one-term House representative James Roe also received votes.
1956: Eisenhower, having declared himself ready and elected in 1952, was unopposed for renomination.
1964: Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat ascendant to John F. Kennedy, got the same treatment that ascendant Presidents usually do. Governor George Wallace and a slew of favorite sons weren't going to cut it, though, and thus the primary season was largely figured as going through the motions.
1968: Johnson said in March that he wouldn't seek another term. Everybody blames this on Vietnam. What gets forgotten is that at the time he said that, he was seeking another term. He was losing, badly, and made his exit upon seeing an internal poll showing him getting plastered in Wisconsin, the next primary in line, by Senator Eugene McCarthy. The nomination eventually went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. As far as I'm concerned, it's serious opposition, serious enough to hound the President out of the race.
1972: Richard Nixon, a Republican, was the incumbent, and had only to swat away a pair of gadflies, House representatives John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey.
1976: Gerald Ford, a Republican, was the incumbent, but as he was the only President to not be officially approved by the voters in any way, shape or form, there was no way he wasn't drawing opposition. Ford's opposition was Ronald Reagan, who Ford beat, but not by much. There was also Harold Stassen, but his big opportunity had come and gone in 1948, and he had been running every time since right up through 2000. Look up 'perennial candidate' and if there's a picture, it's certain to be his.
1980: Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was the incumbent. His term had gone badly enough that Senator Ted Kennedy decided this was his chance, and while he put the hurt on, taking 12 states from Carter and building late momentum, it wasn't enough. Governor Jerry Brown also took a primary, Michigan's. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's name was put forward as a compromise just in case the convention became deadlocked.
1984: Ronald Reagan, as we established early on, was the incumbent. All he had to do was beat Harold Stassen. In 1984, I could probably have beaten Harold Stassen and I wasn't even born yet.
1992: George H.W. Bush- Bush 41- was the Republican incumbent. His opposition was columnist Pat Buchanan, who put in a scare in New Hampshire but ultimately didn't win a thing. Oh, and also there was Harold Stassen. 8,099 people voted for Stassen, probably as a joke.
1996: Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was the incumbent. Lyndon Larouche mounted a challenge, despite the fact that he had taken his big shot in 1976, and also there was the little issue of his being on parole at the time. He claimed two delegates, who were both thrown out because the Democrats wanted no part of LaRouche's crazy ass. He's still involved in politics, putting Hitler mustaches on Barack Obama on his PAC website.
2004: George W. Bush- Bush 43- was the Republican incumbent. Bill Wyatt, a T-shirt maker from California, was Bush's strongest opposition. He claimed that his 4% in the Louisiana primary was a victory, as it sent a message to the party. Whatever message it was, it was deleted unread.
Let's add all that up...
Races where the incumbent was completely unopposed: 13
Races with serious opposition: 9 (1800, 1852, 1856, 1868, 1884, 1912, 1968, 1976, 1980)
Races with serious opposition where the incumbent had not taken over the term through the predecessor's early departure: 4 (1800, 1856, 1912, 1980)
Races where the incumbent was defeated: 5 (1852, 1856, 1868, 1884, 1968)
Races where a President not completing a term abandoned through the predecessor's death was defeated: 1 (1856)
Well, okay, I wasn't entirely correct. Incumbent Presidents can draw serious opposition. But in order to get it, half the time it takes a President who wasn't elected President. And unless you count Lyndon Johnson- and almost nobody does- no incumbent President has actually been unseated in the primary since 1884, an era prior to anything we would recognize today as a primary season. And if you cut it down to Barack Obama's current situation- an incumbent completing a term he began in his own right- the only president who has lost the primary under those circumstances is Franklin Pierce.
The slogan of the Democratic Party in 1856 was "Anybody But Pierce".
The slogan on the website of the Democratic National Committee today is "Change That Matters."
Bit of a difference.