Stupid Political Question

Would a serious Democrat primary challenge for President help or harm the incumbent?

Remember it would be a platform and forum in which the general election (non-primary) would be framed and the lack of that will mean now till late spring will be dominated by the GOP primary race for which there is no corresponding activity on the Democrat side.

On the other hand, he could lose.

10 responses to “Stupid Political Question

  1. Most incumbent President’s who had a serious challenger were hurt in the general election by it. Bush I suffered Pat Buchannan, Carter suffered Ted Kennedy, LBJ suffered so much that he didn’t even run. Truman had a Democratic challenger but he won….but that was a special case since his challenger went on to run a rogue Dixiecrat campaign.

    I think what your missing is a lot of activity that doesn’t get covered. While Republicans trash each other and blow money against each other and position themselves to the extreme right to one up each other, the incumbent President is quietly raising funds. I think I recall hearing the goal is to have a $1B warchest by the time the general election begins. A second factor to consider is that while Republican donars are being tapped to fund conflicting candidates, the incumbent has the advantage in that everything donated to any Democrat goes to the general election while a portion of Republican dollars will get wasted in the primaries.

    Keep in mind the campaigns of Nixon in 68 and Eisenhower in 52. In both cases there was no serious challenge to them winning the primaries (Eisenhower was given the red carpet by the GOP, most other GOPers were discredited by the Depressionand WWII….Nixon spent his years in the ‘wilderness’ helping other Republicans win election, collecting favors and debts). Likewise Obama was probably hurt a bit by the fact that Hillary didn’t drop out sooner in 2008.

    While primary battles generate attention and media coverage, in general its better for a party to either have an unchallenged nominee or settle on a candidate quickly with very little blood.

  2. Boonton,
    LBJ had one and a half terms (he finished Kennedy’s term and had one on his own).

    Do you think Bush I would have won in the absence of Mr Buchannan? Or Carter in the absence of Mr Kennedy?

    Yes, he can garner more funds, but he loses a lot of free publicity. Nixon was not a weak first term President. The Carter example might be more fruitful. Did the Kennedy challenge substantially damage his standing or was it poor performance (and a water born rodent).

    in general its better for a party to either have an unchallenged nominee or settle on a candidate quickly with very little blood.

    That’s the crux of my question. I’m not sure the case is so clear cut.

  3. 1980 was a bit more complicated as there was a 3rd party candidate (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1980). The question isn’t wether or not the primary challenge cost the incumbant the Presidency, its wether it hurt them. I think Bush I was hurt by Buchannan, Carter was hurt by Kennedy. That’s not to say that they would have won without those challengers, but I certainly don’t think they helped them.

    The challengers bring the following cons IMO:

    1. They disrupt the ability of the incumbant to use his superior position to raise funds and save them for the general campaign.

    2. They disrupt his ability to rally his loyal supporters. Instead he must try to justify himself to his base which often means shifting to the left or right rather than the center. This disrupts the ‘home field avantage’ the incumbant usually has as the ‘moderate’.

    3. The challenger launches the meme that the incumbant can be dispensed with.

    The only plus you present is publicity on the theory that “bad publicity is good publicity as long as its publicity”. That is indeed ofen a slogan but has it really ever been proven true?

  4. Boonton,
    “Bad publicity” is matched by the candidate having 5-6 months more of getting his message out against a non-generic opponent. Against your points.

    1. His funds are not wasted, they are spent getting his message out.
    2. This is, I think, the real valid point. Election cycles often show the primary with a tack to the ideological center in the primary and to the left/right center in the general election. Against this point, Mr Obama faces the problem of a left/far-left which is getting disillusioned. A chance for him to tack left might help re-energize that base prior to his return to the center (which will not excite them).
    3. That “meme” is called “an election”. I’m not sure that’s a valid point.

    I think Buchanan, for example, hurt Bush in that his message tarnished the GOP image in general and not that his comments vis-a-vis Bush was harmful to Bush. I don’t recall much at all of the Kennedy/Carter primary battle, which in in itself might be significant as I was a kid in a Democrat household.

  5. 1. Funds are wasted in attacking or answering attacks from fellow party members. An unchallenged incumbant has the freedom to use his funds to ‘get his message out’ unchallenged if he wishes. Historically incumbants usually use the period to concentrate on building their war chests but there’s no ‘rule’ against them using the period to push ads or messages for themselves. The challenger(s) have no such liberty, they must use funds to fight each other rather than simply present a unified message against hte incumbant.

    3. Not really, the incumbant has the advantage usually of appearing tested and in charge. A serious challenge often indicates that there is something wrong with him. After all, if there wasn’t why would ‘his own people’ be challenging him? Without an early challenge, its the opposing party who has the uphill battle of trying to unseat the incumbant. The challenger, by definition, is doing some of that work ahead of time.

  6. Boonton,
    Did the race against Clinton in the primary in ’07 help or hurt Obama in his race against McCain? Might not blunting or responding to attacks in a more friendly court (betwixt liberals) help prepare a candidate for similar challenges (or if they are deftly handled, pre-empt that attack) in the general election.

    The funds aren’t wasted. Funds are spent getting your message out. That public awareness so purchased is not suddenly forgotten by those who saw it in the general election.

  7. 1. Hurt, Obama would have been better off had he been able to ‘seal the deal’ earlier and get Clinton out of the ’07 race. I’m surprised you’d cite that, didn’t you say your mother was a Hillary supporter? If Obama had ‘sealed a deal’ and gotten Hillary to drop out much earlier, perhaps as VP candidate, and endorsed Obama would she not have been more inclined to vote for Obama? Would Obama not have been able to sooner pivot to a national message and amass resources for the national campaign?

    2. ” Might not blunting or responding to attacks in a more friendly court (betwixt liberals) help prepare a candidate for similar challenges (or if they are deftly handled, pre-empt that attack) in the general election.” No. In essence the attacks amounted to the Democrats doing opposition research for the Republicans. Didn’t Palin pick up the Ayers meme? Didn’t ‘Willie Horton’ get picked up by Bush I? What makes it even worse is if the response is that the attack is unfair the opposition can toss back at you the fact that it was people in your own party who first made the attack. Yes maybe there’s some value in honing your response to attacks and practice but I think this is usually overshadowed by the harm that’s done in a drawn out primary campaign. It’s not always fatal of course, Obama won even though the primary fight was bitter. Bush I won even though the GOP field was highly contested after Reagan’s term.

    The funds aren’t wasted. Funds are spent getting your message out. That public awareness so purchased is not suddenly forgotten by those who saw it in the general election.

    You’re missing the point. Nothing is stopping Obama from using the funds he is raising now to get his message out now. He is free to use his funds as he sees fit. In a primay challenge, though, one is forced to act. Forced to respond rather than having some ability to control the message. The fact that incumbants are usually relatively silent during primaries is not due to the fact that they can’t speak, its due to the fact that they would rather not. They’d rather let their opponents harm each other. They’d rather secure funds early in the cycle rather than late in the cycle (note many campaigns borrow money, if you borrow from a bank showing a huge amount of money in the checking account for months on end is a good thing). They’d rather study the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition party candidates instead of testing their own messages or potentially revealing strategies early on.

  8. Boonton,

    You’re missing the point. Nothing is stopping Obama from using the funds he is raising now to get his message out now.

    There’s a good sporting analogy here. You race/ride harder when you have competition. It’s harder to push when you have an abstract or missing opponent. Why is this different?

  9. Sporting analgoies only go so far. You have to remember its more a game of strategy than raw effort and talent. Revealing your messages early on carries with it a price in itself, whoever the person who will run against you will have that extra time to study and counter your message. There’s also the Heisenberg effect….by attacking early you will alter the dynamics of the opposing party’s primaries. This may stop some potentially dangerous candidates from self destructing or may cause them not to reveal weaknesses or strengths. Will a team always use its ‘killer plays’ early in the game or sometimes find saving them to late in the game more apt?

  10. Boonton,
    What sport does not entail strategy? Kinda like all of them.

    Yes, except you opponents in this case won’t be “studying” so much as they are engaged in their own primary races.

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