Obama more vulnerable to primary challenge from the right than the left

by: Chris Bowers

Tue Nov 24, 2009 at 14:21

Is President Obama becoming vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2012?  Further, is there any chance that challenge could be from the left?

Looking President Obama's job approval by partisan and ideological self-identification, looking at the partisan and ideological self-identification of the Democratic primary electorate as a whole, one can quickly answer "no" to both of those questions.:

Obama job approval by partisan and ideological self-identification, within the Democratic primary electorate
Ideology and Party % of Dem primary electorate Presidential Job Approval
Liberal Dem 37% 87%
Moderate Dem 30% 81%
Conservative Dem 9% 70%
Liberal Ind 9% 79%
Moderate Ind 7% 43%
Conservative Ind 3% 28%
Lib-Mod Rep 2% 28%
Conservative Rep 1% 10%
(Source for primary electorate composition: here
Source for job approval by partisan and ideological self-ID: here and here

Overall, this chart gives President Obama a 75% approval rating among the Democratic primary electorate.  Further, exactly two-thirds of the primary electorate that does not approve of President Obama's job performance self-identifies as either moderate or conservative, while only one-third is liberal.  This means that, at least right now, President Obama is not vulnerable to a primary challenge, and what little danger he faces comes primarily from his right, not his left.

More in the extended entry

Chris Bowers :: Obama more vulnerable to primary challenge from the right than the left
So far, the dominant narrative among liberal and progressives is that President Obama is on their side and accomplishing what he can.  Any shortfalls are the fault of Republicans, conservative Democrats, the media, corporate lobbies, or anyone who is not President Obama.  This can be seen in the actions of most progressive grassroots organizations, such as MoveOn.org.  The basic idea is that progressives are pushing conservative Democrats to fall in line with President Obama's agenda, not that President Obama himself is failing to push hard enough (or actually opposed to progressive ideas).

Whether this narrative will change following large and long-term troop increases in Afghanistan, the coming across the board spending freezes or cuts, and the formation of commission to cut Social Security, remains to be seen.  However, my guess is that all of this won't have any particularly strong impact on President Obama's approval among the left.

For one thing, President Obama's disconnect with his base on Afghanistan hasn't hurt him so far.  For another, young people, who make up a large percentage of the Obama base, are actually far more in favor of cutting Social Security than any other group (even though young people would be the ones who would see their benefits cuts).  And the spending freeze?  Well, I don't expect any sizable progressive groups to even make the case against it, since those groups built their membership lists by loading up with Obama activists who won't want those organizations to take the President head-on.  So, without anyone arguing against it, he will get more or less a pass from the base on that, too.

Instead of a primary challenge, I expect the continuing economic malaise and factionalization within both parties to result in one--or more--strong third party candidates in the 2012 elections.  Once again, the strongest of those challenges will not be on the left, but either in the Perot-Buchanan line of American exceptionalism, or from the hard-right teabaggers.  The self-identified left is still largely with President Obama.

(FWIW--I am "undecided" on whether I approve of President Obama's job performance.  I imagine the next four months--health care conclusion, Afghanistan decision, budget announcement, jobs bill, potential Social Security / Medicare commission--will clear things up one way or the other.)

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Not surprising given the loyalty shown to Obama (4.00 / 1)
by Kos diarists.  Although, the disillusioned faction seems to grow every month.  By 2011, who knows?

John McCain won't insure children

If The Moon Were Made Of Green Cheese!. . . . (4.00 / 2)
Would it be Munster or Gouda?

There. I've just posited a hypothetical about as relevant as a primary challenge to Obama.

There has NEVER been a successful primary challenge to a sitting president. There never will be.

The closest we've come in the last 150 years would be:

1. Harry Truman in 1952 realized he couldn't win the Presidency so he stepped aside and let Adlai Stevenson take the nomination. He didn't run.

2. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run in 1968 after his "poor" showing in New Hampshire -- where he won less handily than expected.

But, both these men would have won the nomination if they HAD run. Stevenson would not have run against Truman, and McCarthy was not favored by a majority of Democrats.

They stepped aside because they felt they wouldn't win (Truman) and were ill and tired out (Johnson).

It would take a total breakdown in the system for a serious Democratic challenger to even decide to jump in -- that person would almost certainly lose and then they would be drummed out of the party. Not much upside, unless you are:

a. not currently in office and not planning to run again for national office (John Anderson 1980)

b. running an independent challenge to a wildly unpopular incumbent (Eugene McCarthy).

Frankly, it's less likely today that any Democrat would dare challenge Obama because the need for major funding is SO much greater than in 1968. Also at that point, Johnson had been in office for 7 years and the war was HIS war.

Anybody with a serious Jones for the Presidency would have to start unofficially campaigning and raising money NEXT YEAR.

Of course, barring unforeseen events Obama will be vastly too strong in 2010 for any Democrat to run that risk.

And a marginal candidate (especially one from the right) would generate little or no funding.

There is also no more room in the Democratic party for a conservative challenge from the right (remember Joe Lieberman's aborted Presidential run) than among Republicans for a challenge from the left.

Finally, the survey does NOT indicate that everybody who is unhappy with Obama's performance would support a potential primary challenger.

If polled, I would probably say I'm dissatisfied with Obama's performance -- but I certainly wouldn't support a challenger to him. That would only divide the party and ensure President Palin!

[ Parent ]
I Should Point Out ONE Caveat! (0.00 / 0)
If Eisenhower had decided to declare as a Democrat in 1952 (he was offered the Democratic nomination) he could have beaten Harry Truman for the nomination -- but it would have been very ugly. There was a lot more party loyalty then than now and even Harry Truman would have had the support of some party bosses.

There is nobody in America today who commands the universal respect that Eisenhower did in 1952. Not even close.

That might be unique in American history since the Civil War.

[ Parent ]
You forgot Teddy Roosevelt (0.00 / 0)
He won all of the primaries, and lost the nomination in the smoke-filled rooms

Also, LBJ tried to run in 1968.  

[ Parent ]
strike my second sentence (0.00 / 0)
you talk about that.

[ Parent ]
Also, you have to realize (4.00 / 1)
that the current primary system is very new--meaningful primaries that couldn't be overturned by party leadership date, at the earliest to 1968 (I don't think any primary system that doesn't involve runoffs could handle the RFK assassination).  When you consider how close that Reagan came to unseating Ford in 1976, and how close Kennedy came to unseating Carter in 1980.  If you count Johnson's resignation, then you have 3 cases where seated Presidents were either very closely challenged or defeated out of eight incumbent Presidents.  

Even if you throw out the 1980 campaign, that is still 25%, not an impossible rate.

[ Parent ]
Note that I also think primariying Obama is stupid and unproductive (0.00 / 0)
I'm just saying that I don't think it's impossible.

[ Parent ]
Did you forget an F-word, Rahm? ;) (0.00 / 0)
Seriously, though, it really depends more on the challenger and how much Reaganomics redux we're fed between now and then.

[ Parent ]
Given the amount of money and organization required (0.00 / 0)
to actually run a successful primary challenge against Obama, and the chances of success even if we did so, it would make much, much more sense to work on better lobbying apparatus and on influencing the House and Senate.  

The latter builds much, much more institutional power, and doesn't put all of our eggs in one basket, which might end up being just as bad a basket as Obama is.  

[ Parent ]
We can do both (0.00 / 0)
there is no money either way.  We rely purely on footwork because we are progressive and we don't have corporate sponsers.

My blog  

[ Parent ]
There is money (0.00 / 0)
No, there is not the same amount of sizable corporate money that you see going toward the Blue dogs, but there is no candidate for office above Alderman that is run without some sort of financing.  And those resources are finite, and running a successful primary challenge against a sitting president is inordinately expensive.  Even organizing footwork into a national organization that has any efficacy is very expensive.  

[ Parent ]
TR (4.00 / 2)
Taft was the sitting President, not Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

The closest call for a sitting President who went to the convention in semi-recent times was obviously Gerald Ford who just barely squeezed by Reagan in 1976 at Kansas City.

Truman, LBJ and Ford were all people who inherited the job rather than being nominated and elected from the outside.  The same would be true for Chester A. Arthur who tried and failed in 1884.  IIRC Grant wanted a third term in 1876 and was denied.

If one must go back to 1884, a sitting President is hard to dislodge.  Hoover was renominated.  Carter was renominated despite the fact that Kennedy was closer to most of the party ideologocally.  Due to identity politics, Obama would be even harder to unseat.

The easiest way to make a change is probably to unseat prominent Blue Dogs and Conservadems in primaries.  The more prominent the better. Jim Cooper might be the easiest.  The district (Nashville) has changed and he's the leader of the gut Social Security movement.  Joe Baca is another one.  That's a 68% Obama district.  If anybody had $20 or $30 million, I'd love to collect the scalp of Evan Bayh. Melissa Bean would be another one I'd want to eliminate.  

[ Parent ]
I'm talking about TR's primary challenge in 1912 (0.00 / 0)
I understand that Taft was the sitting president, that was my point.  Roosevelt won the primaries, and lost the nomination in the smoke filled rooms, and then went on to beat taft in the popular vote.  Under our current system, Roosevelt almost certainly would have been the Republican nominee.

[ Parent ]
Johnson didn't think he could survive a primary challenge (4.00 / 1)
and that is why he resigned the Presidency.

Anyway if there is none,we only need two percent of voters to upend Obama in the general.  Nader proved that.

My blog  

[ Parent ]
drummed out of the party (0.00 / 0)
They won't drum them out, they'll make them chair of a committee or Secretary of State. Obama and the new Democratic Party are so bad, the only way they can win elections is to wow 18 year olds.  

[ Parent ]
The green party can wow them (0.00 / 0)
too and only need to wow 2 percent of us for the candidates to lose the general. If the greens would just focus on conservadems they could purify the democrats.

My blog  

[ Parent ]
Party machinery is still the same (4.00 / 1)
The D party won't learn any lesson until they actually lose more than they gain from speculatively allowing conservatives to run under their banner.

Also, consider that conservatives (DLCers, Blue Dogs, GOPers, etc.) hold a majority in the House and nearly so in the Senate.

Finally, Congressional leadership needs to fall unconditionally for selling out the left.  Pelosi is especially worth a challenge here, if all those D party true believers over at dK could recognize that callling Cindy Sheehan an attention whore only helps the corporate Ds and hurts themselves.

[ Parent ]
I'm amazed that you pick Pelosi of all people (4.00 / 4)
when she's been on our side more than anyone else.

Plus, she's the hardest of the Big Three to be defeated.  Harry Reid is far more endangered, and Barack Obama less so but more than Pelosi (unless Democrats actually lose their majority in the House).

If you want to focus your ire on someone in leadership I would concentrate on Steny Hoyer and put someone more liberal in the Majority Leader position.

[ Parent ]
Sometimes I wonder if you're actually a rightwing mole, marxmarv. (0.00 / 0)
Most of your comments are about unseating Dems, and voting third party, issues that would divide and thus hurt the left wing. And looking through your contributions I couldn't find one where you explain your political stance. Suspiciously absent is any passion about progressive causes, your main point seems to be to hurt the Dem party. Not to jump to unfair conclusions, but a rightwinger who wants to disrupt the Dem party would act the same...

[ Parent ]
More Democrats, better Democrats leaves only no Democrats. (4.00 / 1)
Enabling a party (or system) of corporate thugs and extortionists just because they're Ds instead of crazy Rs is not going to change a thing.  All of the emails, letters, phone calls in the world begging them to do or not to do this or that is simply calling out the clowns.  The  only thing they understand is power; and liberals have none -  and will have none until they are willing to take down Democrats.  Figuratively speaking, if you aren't willing to pull the trigger, don't point the gun; and after 30 years, I am more than willing to point and shoot.  

The Democratic Party we are fighting for is dead.  Clinton and Obama are the new Democratic Party, which no longer makes me a Democrat.  As the saying goes, I didn't leave the party; it left me.  

[ Parent ]
I mostly agree with you, dk,... (0.00 / 0)
...but I already know your stance. My point is, what progressives views does marxmarv hold?

[ Parent ]
Don't know. (4.00 / 1)
I'm not real good with remembering names.  My staff giggles and takes bets on how many of their names I will forget when I introduce them.  Thank god they take no offense.  Its just that I've been there for 30 years and so many of them, including college interns, have come and gone that I really can't remember them all pf the names.  

[ Parent ]
Wasn't this conventional wisdom questioned by the 2008 Dem Primary? (0.00 / 0)
but I certainly wouldn't support a challenger to him. That would only divide the party and ensure President Palin!

I'm pretty sure that was the early line about H. Clinton and the scary GOPper of the moment back in 2007 and before. How did that hold up?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
top of the rec list (4.00 / 1)
You are losing me, Mr. President


[ Parent ]
couldn't last long, the reality community steps in (4.00 / 2)
"You Are Losing Me, Kossacks."


I like this:

Instead, I see the same old attitude that has doomed us to electoral failure.

damn that dean attitude that doomed us...

[ Parent ]
Oh no! (0.00 / 0)
Without the painfully obvious concern troll demographic, what hope do we have for 2010? The sky is falling!

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
If Obama is challenged from the right (0.00 / 0)
then he'll need the base and those to the left to sustain himself as the challenger eats away at his right wing.

Perhaps that political reality will stimulate President O. to do something more than pay lipservice to his base?

Or am I just dreaming about ponies again?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

Dreaming, I'm Afraid (4.00 / 4)
but, then, dream ponies are easier to feed.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I figured as much (0.00 / 0)
I keep forgetting that change means more of the same.

Besides, I'd probably get fined if I tried to keep anything but a dream pony at my home. So I guess it is just one more way that President O. is looking out for my interests, even when it seems like he's actively ignoring me. He's really good at this multi-dimensional chess.

Apparently, the base and leftish types will have to swear their allegience to Obama and promise not bandon him while he tacks to the right in order to stave off the challenge.

Strange, I always thought it was those that ignore history that are doomed to repeat it. I know the history of how Democrats deal with the the left, so why does it have to be repeated?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
His base is 18 year olds, Latinos, and Wall Street... (0.00 / 0)
The Democrats have dumped unions and the working/middle class.  

[ Parent ]
I Don't Think These Figures Mean Much In Terms of Possible Challenges (4.00 / 3)
It's simply too far away in time. We don't have a lot of precedent to look at, but we do have two examples.

McCarthy's challenge to LBJ wasn't even remotely conceivable at this point in Johnson's presidency after winning election on his own.  In fact, activists tried to recruit other Senators--not just RFK--with no luck, before settling on McCarthy, and it was really only after the Tet Offensive that his candidacy was finally seen to be real.

Ted Kennedy's challenge to Carter got a big boost from the 1978 mini-convention (the only one ever held, for obvious reasons), and Kennedy then was clearly a major national figure.

So, if something's going to happen in the way of a challenge, these examples suggest that it's probably at least a year too early to expect to see any signs.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

I'm surprised neither you, Chris, nor Rosenberg (4.00 / 1)
has discussed the prospect of a third-party run by Dobbs. With his populism and nationalism, he could peel away a lot of those moderate Dems and with his nativism he'd appeal to conservatives as well. And unlike the leaders of the two major parties, he wants to bring the troops home.

As for Obama, I'd be interested to know how he's doing among liberals after another year of killing in Afghanistan and another year of double digit employment.

I don't think I dismissed it (0.00 / 0)
In fact, I noted that a third-party run in the Perot-Buchannan "American exceptionalist" mode could do quite well in 2012.

[ Parent ]
Yeah, that's why I said it (0.00 / 0)
(I didn't say you dismissed it.)

You've spoken about the opening for a centrist, populist challenge, Dobbs would seem to fill the void reasonably well, his batshit-birtherism notwithstanding.

[ Parent ]
You're talking self identification (0.00 / 0)
How many self identified moderate dems support universal health care and national health insurance.  Also this poll doesn't measure likely voters.   The self identified liberals maybe unlikely to vote.

My blog  

Self-identified liberals are more likely to vote than most (0.00 / 0)
I can't find data right now, but I'm certain of this.

[ Parent ]
I think a primary challenge is a fool's errand (4.00 / 1)
That has almost no chance of success given Obama's institutional apparatus.  That being said, however, I don't necessarily think your conclusion follows from your numbers.  The above numbers just indicate that there are so many more self-identified Democrats voting Democrat than there are from the other groups:

Using the above numbers, I generated another set of data:

% of democratic primary voters dissatisfied with Obama

Lib Dem: 20
Mod Dem: 24
Con Dem: 11

Lib Ind: 8
Mod Ind: 17
Con Ind: 9

Lib/Mod rep: 6
Con Rep: 4

If any primary challenge against Obama were to have a prayer, it should peel off liberals and liberal-leaning moderates.  Only 24% of those democratic primary voters currently disapproving of Obama are self-identified conservatives.

Also does it occur to anyone that all the scare (4.00 / 3)
talk from Glen Beck, Sarah and the teabaggers is causing the liberals to reflexively support Obama.  1)They are scared the baggers will win the Presidency, so Obama is the lessor evil.  2)They pay more attention to loony right stories than stories of Obama selling them down the river!

My blog  

I recognize that by challenging Obama we might (4.00 / 1)
throw things temporarily to the repukes but I think they just use meaner rhetoric but give us the same policies as Obama.  We have to do something to shore up the bravery of the left and stop being so damn chicken shit of the near term that we overlook the fact that the pie is shrinkin no matter what?

My blog  

[ Parent ]
the blind leading the blind to the deaf and the dumb (4.00 / 1)
Remember the balmy days between the election and the inauguration? Those were the days progressives took Obama's campaign promises literally and were convinced that, between the "demographic shifts" and all the young people brought into the political process via Pouffe's Organizing For America folks, the conservatives and the Republicans were doomed for years to come.

Remember that?

Now the OFA folks have been carefully subsumed in the DLC's DNC and even the generic polls show the generic Republicans out in front.

That's what happens when you have an electorate that doesn't have a clue as to how power really functions in our "democracy".

Indeed, that 87% of liberal Democrats actually approve of Obama's presidency to date speaks volumes about the blind leading the blind to the deaf and dumb.

And now here we are discussing the possibility of Obama being challenged from the right!!

Only the Bilderberg folks behind the scenes in the Obama administration are a lot less blind than "the people".

So far, the dominant narrative among liberal and progressives is that President Obama is on their side and accomplishing what he can.

Really, how appalling...how scary...is that?!!

Yeah, people disagreeing with you is terrifying (0.00 / 0)
If you're a child, that is.

[ Parent ]
President Who? (0.00 / 0)
I'm against him-he's just another Clinton-and I'm in the process of letting my friends and family know that I've broken with the guy I caucused for last year. I would encourage others to do the same, because otherwise as the failures of the self-proclaimed "New Democrat" snowball, he will invalidate everything to the left of Lieberman.

Not that our focus should be on the Administration; I firmly believe our focus should be on the Senate. I just don't listen to anything Obama himself says anymore; I naturally tune him out without even thinking about it.

If Dean or someone else jumps into the ring in 2011, I think that's great. And if someone from a third party jumps in and can put real pressure on the current system, I am all for that.

BTW: For myself, I wouldn't cite one, four-year-old poll as concrete evidence of the 18-29 age demographic's natural disposition toward Social Security.

Primary challenges happen when elites in the party (4.00 / 1)
become dissatisfied, not when potential primary voters do.  When that happens, it drives voter dissatisfaction - encouraging them to choose among partisans rather than just up or down for one's own party. It's an entirely different dynamic.

If we can push people in the party (state and local level, congressional caucus) to be more progressive, it's likely to push the White House in the same direction.  If that doesn't happen, that's when the potential for a primary would occur (although regardless of circumstances, it's unlikely.)

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

Moderates don't launch vicious primaries (0.00 / 0)
A challenge to a sitting president from within his own party would be a vicious, cut-me-off-at-the-knees primary, all spitting venom, shouting, misinformation and rhetoric. It would involve bloody uphill slogging with no money for months on end, in a cause that nobody rational would believe they can win.

That doesn't sound like Democratic Party moderates. Whinging, yes. Backsliding on promises, yes. Selling out to corporate elites, yes. But career-destroying histrionics in an obviously losing caus

Only the left of the Democratic Party (and only a small section of that) cares enough about specific issue positions, takes enough of a Manichean view or is willing enough to martyr itself for it to take on a Sisyphean struggle like unseating Obama.

That's not to criticise those on the left who'd primary - I'd back them in a heartbeat. But most won't, and I think even on the left the elites are temperamentally conservative and cautious enough to avoid backing a challenge. You might get an outsider candidate, somebody like Kucinich or Sharpton, and they might get 10% in 5% of Iowa caucus precincts. But that's your limit.

Whereas on the right, if they disagree they'll just withhold money, go on cable news to complain or, in extremis, endorse the Republican/Dobbs.

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