Portents and Agents of Doom

Dr. Malcolm Cross

President Biden’s current political weaknesses may inspire other Democrats to challenge him for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination.  The probability that he will be defeated for renomination is small.  But it’s quite possible that primary challenges may at least foretell, and may even contribute to, defeat in the general election.

In my Flash column of 12/19/22, I noted that Biden faced 2 major hurdles to re-election:  Public disapproval of his handling of economic issues, and his inability to perceive that the public was rejecting his economic leadership.  In my Flash column of 12/26/22, I suggested that Biden’s political weaknesses could work to his advantage by encouraging a clown car load of Republicans to fight each other for their party’s nomination in the belief that whoever the GOP nominated could defeat Biden in the general election.  But this would make it easier for former President Trump to win renomination through a divide-and-conquer strategy, and easier for Biden to keep the presidency, given Trump’s 31% approval rating—to Biden’s 44%–among the voting public.

But Biden’s perceived weaknesses, as well as many Democrats’ belief that he has been insufficiently progressive, could draw other Democrats into the primary race as well.  Progressives who’ve set up the https://www.dontrunjoe.org/  website argue that President Biden is simply too weak to prevent the victory of a “neofascist GOP” in 2024.  Moreover, he’s “Failed to truly address such pressing concerns as the climate emergency, voting rights, student debt, health care, corporate price-gouging, and bloated military spending in tandem with anemic diplomacy.”  Biden should recognize that “A president is not his party’s king, and he has no automatic right to renomination. Joe Biden should not seek it. If he does, he will have a fight on his hands.”

So what impact would the progressives’ desired “fight on his hands” have on Biden’s chances not only for renomination but for re-election as well?

No president seeking renomination has been rejected by his party’s national nominating convention since Chester Alan Arthur lost his renomination battle in 1884.  But 6 presidents have lost state primary elections in their otherwise successful quests for renomination.  Two went on to win re-election, but 4 were defeated.

In general, a president can afford to lose a few primaries with little damage to his renomination and re-election chances.  Calvin Coolidge lost 2 out of the 17 GOP primaries in the spring of 1924.  But he won the other 15 primaries easily as well as  68% of the popular vote cast in all the primaries, and cruised to victory in the general election, winning about 55% of the total vote.  Franklin Roosevelt won 37 out of 38 primaries and 93% of the popular primary vote in 1936.  He did slightly worse in 1940, loosing 3 of the 37 primaries.  But he still won 34 primaries and 72% of the popular vote, earning renomination at the Democratic National Convention and re-election that fall.

But losing too many primaries can portend doom for a president’s re-election campaign.  After all, if members of a president’s own party reject him, who will support him?  And overcoming the rigors of a vigorous primary challenge may so weaken the president that his primary losses can be seen not only as portents of defeat, but agents of defeat as well.

The two worse cases are those of William Howard Tat in 1912 and Herbert Hoover in 1932.  Taft lost 9 of 13 primaries to former president Theodore Roosevelt, winning only 2 primaries (2 other primaries were won by progressive Republican Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin) and only 34% of the popular vote to Roosevelt’s 52%.  Hoover won only 4 of the GOP’s 15 primaries and 36% of the popular vote; the other 11 primaries were won by various challengers who divided up the 64% of the anti-Hoover vote.  Taft and Hoover were still able to win renomination since most delegates to their nominating conventions were still selected by state and local party bosses indifferent to, and not bound by, primary election results.  But Taft and Hoover still lost their respective general elections in landslides, as portended by the primary results:  If Republicans wouldn’t vote for them, who would?

Former President Ford came the closest to losing his party’s nomination following his weak showing in the 1976 primaries.  Facing an expectedly strong challenge from Ronald Reagan, Ford won only 27 of the 51 primaries and caucuses to Reagan’s 24, 53% of the popular vote Reagan’s 46%, and 51% of the delegates to Reagan’s 49%.  Given that Ford almost—but not quite—won the fall campaign against Jimmy Carter, it’s possible, but not proven, that the expenditure of resources to defeat Reagan in the spring might have weakened him enough to deprive him of victory in the fall.

And it’s probable that President Carter’s re-election chances were hurt by the primary challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy in 1980.  Kennedy won 12 primaries to Carter’s 36, and 38% of the popular vote to Carter’s 51%.  With almost half of Democratic voters rejecting their president for Kennedy and other challengers, these election outcomes can likewise be seen as both portents and agents of doom for the incumbent.

So President Biden should be very concerned should other Democrats, fearing he’s too unpopular to win re-election or insufficiently progressive to merit renomination, choose to challenge him for their party’s presidential nomination.  He may well be able to win renomination anyway, but the stronger the challenge, the worse his re-election chances will become, as shown by the 4 out of 6 presidents before him who lost primaries–and the presidency as well.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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