(Section 2 Updated)
President Obama has been a huge disappointment to many on the left. Yet for all the talk of him facing a primary challenge, no serious candidate launched a campaign against him. Why? It is probably because he has always looked the favorite to win the 2012 general election. For most party members, winning matters much more than policy.
At bottom, that is why a primary challenge to an incumbent president is an unrealistic means of changing a party’s policies, especially for a Democratic incumbent. The Democratic Party appears to believe the only way to win a presidential election is to run a conservative candidate. Indeed, the Democrats have incorporated conservative policies and values to capture voters far more so than Republicans have adopted liberal policies. For example, while President Obama’s first term has mostly been an overture to conservative voters, Republicans have rejected the one candidate in the primaries who might have attracted liberal voters – Ron Paul. As long as Democrats equate “centrism” with “electability,” a relatively progressive primary challenger stands no chance.
Yet one of the most common objections to voicing a desire for a third-party challenger on the left is that a primary challenge would be better because it could accomplish the same things without “splitting the vote.” There are many problems with this argument/attempt to protect the Party. Perhaps the most important is that a primary challenge is not the equivalent of a third party challenge – they serve different goals. But rather than go into that, we want to point out two related reasons why a presidential primary challenge is obviously impractical for holding the incumbent accountable to the left.
1. Conservatives consistently win Democratic primaries. The last three Democratic primaries have resulted in victory for a conservative candidate over a more liberal challenger. In 2008, Barack Obama won the nomination over the obviously more liberal John Edwards, and arguably more liberal Hillary Clinton. In 2004, John Kerry won the nomination over the initially much more popular and significantly more left-leaning Howard Dean. In 2000, only Bill Bradley challenged Vice President Al Gore. Bradley “consistently positioned himself to the left” of Gore, and tried distinguish himself “by courting progressive voters.” Moreover, Bradley was very well funded. Gore won in a landslide, taking every state and all but one by double-digits. In short, recent history—and the fact that there has never been a successful primary challenge to an incumbent president (LBJ was still expected to win before he withdrew)—show that a primary challenge would not unseat a conservative incumbent Democrat.
There is also the argument that a primary challenge by a progressive candidate would force the incumbent to become more liberal, but this ignores reality. Everything above discredits it because (1) the primary process selects conservative candidates – there is no need to pander to a liberal base to win. But if a candidate did so during the primaries, s/he would revert to a conservative candidacy because (2) Democrats want a conservative candidate to face the Republican in the general election. The invariable selection of conservative candidates and the overall movement of the party’s policies and values to the right confirm that.
2. Voters fear the “greater evil.” Democrats would not pick the left candidate in a race between two Democrats to decide who will face the Republican even if they agree more with the left candidate. Primaries precede general elections. People know this, and they take that fact into account when voting (asking, “who is most likely to beat the other guy?”). As discussed above, most people in the Democratic party believe that a more conservative candidate stands the best chance of winning an election. So when the time comes to cast a vote in a primary, people become more cautious and pick the conservative option. This is natural. We have numerous expressions such as “when push come to shove,” “when the rubber meets the road,” “time to show what you’re made of,” etc. that derive from the universal experience of feeling challenged at the moment of action. It is easy for someone on the left to say, “we should challenge Barack Obama,” but harder to go through with it when the time comes to set in motion a series of events that may increase the odds of the Republican nominee winning. Challenging the conservative and elite control of the Democratic Party involves a risk that only an insignificant number on the left have been willing to take.
This fear is so strong that beating the Republican actually takes precedence over specific policy goals. When we asked people if they would consider voting for a third-party candidate in the upcoming election, the most common explanation from respondents who said “no” was that it would help the other candidate win. This fear does not disappear in a primary challenge, and it is unreasonable to expect it to. The following election results tend to confirm this.
**In 1980, President Carter faced a primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy. Carter was extremely unpopular nationwide. In polls that placed him head-to-head with Kennedy soon after the announcement of his intent to challenge Carter, Kennedy led by a significant margin. But this lead disappeared with time and Carter retained the Party’s nomination. Carter’s victory did not depend exclusively on fear of losing, but the final selection of Carter is consistent with that fear. Incumbents have a big advantage in elections, and unseating an incumbent president is not just unusual, it is unprecedented (again, fear of the unknown and the risk of doing something unusual).
**In 2000, Ralph Nader received 2.74% of the popular vote, about half of what he had been polling just the day before. In fact, Nader had been steadily gaining support in 2000, polling at 5% in April, 7% in June, and finally as high as 10% in August. The drop in his support as the election approached, in particular its reduction by half on election day, evidences the lesser-evil voting strategy at work. An academic study
that found showing how Ralph Nader likely may have helped Gore in the 2000 election gives even more weight to this. According to William Hedgcock, assistant professor at the University of Iowa, “[m]any people would have come in supporting Nader but eventually voted for Gore, and that might not have happened if Nader had never entered the race.”
The responses of the study’s participants make the lesser-evil strategy especially persuasive. Participants were given proxy candidates that represented the actual policies of the actual candidates. When a test group was given proxies for Nader, Gore, and Bush, 72% chose the Nader stand-in, only 28% chose the Bush stand-in, but no one chose the Gore stand-in. People’s reluctance to vote for, or most often even seriously consider, a third-party candidate explains why Gore still won the popular vote in the general election.
**In 2010, Bill Halter challenged incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic primary. Lincoln was targeted by a coalition called Accountability Now that formed to “hold entrenched members of the DC establishment accountable for their actions.” Lincoln won the Democrat’s first primary, but without a majority. A run-off primary was held between Halter and Lincoln. Although the Halter led by 4 points in polls just 4 days before the election, Lincoln won the run off by 4 points. Why, if not because she was conservative (and in a conservative state) and the incumbent?
It goes without saying that polls do not capture perfectly the desires of the electorate, but they provide the best evidence available. Moreover, Lincoln was chosen for Accountability Now’s primary challenge not only because the group viewed her as a “radical corporatist,” but also because she had upset both conservatives and liberals so much that she “was considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents seeking re-election.” With that in mind, it would seem to make political sense to support Halter’s candidacy. But the Democrats’ fear and conservative strategy meant Lincoln got all of the Party’s support, including help from its biggest guns Bill Clinton and President Obama.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the dynamics of Senate and House races are different than a presidential race. A primary challenges can be a very effective tool, even at the presidential level. However, it should not be equated to a third-party challenge. When people do equate the two, it is often to protect the two party’s monopoly of presidential elections. The fact remains, though, that for some citizens in some elections—including this year’s presidential election—the best way to advance their interests will be to vote for an independent or third-party candidate.
 Dao, James, Gore-Bradley Races Places Left at Front and Center Among Democrats, New York Times, 27 Oct. 1999: 22.
 Ayres, B., Fringe Candidates Plug Along On Efforts of a Faithful Few, New York Times, 06 Nov 2000: A.32
 Dao, James, Nader Runs Again, This Time with Feeling, New York Times, 15 April 2000: A.1; Janofsky, Michael, Nader, Nominated by the Greens, Attacks Politics as Usual, New York Times, 26 June 2000: A.14; Janofsky, The Road Less Traveled To the Oval Office, New York Times, 06 Aug 2000: 4.5.