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A Primary Challenge?

[Guest post by Matthew Zeitlin]

 In a somewhat odd post for the Atlantic, libertarian-ish Conor Friedersdorf suggests that left-wingers disappointed in the Obama administration ought to support a primary challenge so that they can get Obama to stop taking the left wing of the Democratic Party for granted:

Is there any way out of this cycle, whereby every president is virulently hated by the opposition and proceeds to betray his ideological allies, who submit for lack of an alternative? Are we condemned to a political establishment that has failed all of us?
 What I'd like to see, apart from everything else, is a return to strong primary challenges against sitting presidents. It's easy to understand why they don't happen. But hard to argue that we wouldn't be better off if President Bush had been forced to worry a bit more about fiscal hawks, and President Obama was worried a bit more about anti-corporatists and the anti-war, civil libertarian left.

 It’s hard to see who would support this primary challenge. The visible left-wing activists and writers who are criticizing Obama from the left are not representative of the actual voters that a primary challenger would try to appeal to. Obama is less popular than he was at his inauguration, but among those subgroups that make up the Democratic base, his appeal has been persistent.

National Journal has a good feature looking at Obama’s performance among a wide range of demographic groups, comparing his approval rating in May of this year, August of last year and exit polls from the election. Obama has a uniform dip from the election through summer of 2010, but since then, has stabilized among nearly all groups, especially among those groups that a left-wing primary challenger would appeal to. The Gallup data largely shows the same trend.

So Friedersdorf is trying to summon up a primary challenge when the groups that make up the Democratic Party and its base—self identified Democrats, self identified liberals, women and ethnic minorities—are largely satisfied with Obama and approve of him the most, meaning that the actual voting population for a primary challenge from the left is basically nonexistent.

There’s also the riskiness of opposing Obama before what is sure to be a close election. The history of primary challenges to sitting presidents after their first term is not pretty. Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992 were all weak candidates. That they were primary-challenged may have more to do with their preexisting weakness and unpopularity rather than having been cause of it. However, it certainly can’t help to have to tack left in an election where your base is supposed to be what you count on.  

This is different than primary challenges in congressional races, where a serious primary challenge to one or a few congressmen can have a wider effect on the entire caucus. Losing a presidential election for the sake of making Obama win over the base is something few Democrats would want to risk, especially those voters that Friedersdorf thinks should support a primary challenge in the first place.

The party base’s leverage over its president peaks in the primary campaign before his initial nomination. After that, a primary challenge is only useful for self-destruction.