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Field of Dreams

Why Obama won't face a primary challenge.

This is the inaugural edition of Ed Kilgore's new political column, the PERMANENT CAMPAIGN. Check back every week for obsessive coverage of the 2012 contest.

It's time to smack down, once and for all, the idea that President Obama will face a serious primary challenger in 2012. This trope has been popping up ever since the 2008 general election, when horserace-hungry pundits speculated that Hillary Clinton would try to knock off the Democratic nominee four years down the road. And it's only gotten worse with the rise of the "angry left," which thinks Obama has been too eager to compromise with Wall Street and the Republicans, and considers itself the representative of the Democratic base.

Now, in the aftermath of this month's "shellacking," mischief-making pundits have seized on a couple of polls to burnish their narrative: One is from AP/KN in late October, showing that 47 percent of Democrats want the president to be challenged by another Democrat in 2012 (with 51 percent opposed); and one came from McClatchey/Marist just before Thanksgiving, showing 45 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favoring a primary challenge (with 46 percent opposed).

Sounds pretty dangerous for Obama, right? Well no. For a substantive primary challenge to occur, a coherent bloc of Democratic voters—whether liberal or moderate—would have to sour on Obama and coalesce behind another candidate in such a way that threatens the president's hold over his base. There's just no sign of that happening. For instance, the very same AP/KN poll shows that three-quarters of Democrats want to see the president re-elected; i.e., they're not really discontented with Obama and they just like the idea of a primary that gives them options. Likewise, the McClatchy/Marist survey doesn't show a single bloc fed up with Obama and preparing to bolt for a latter-day Howard Dean: Given a choice of hypothetical challenges, 39 percent of Democrats and leaners preferred a candidate from the left of the president, and 40 percent a candidate from the right.

What's more, Obama's straight approval ratings among rank-and-file Democrats are very high. According to Gallup’s latest weekly tracking poll, 81 percent of self-identified Democrats give Obama a positive job approval rating. Among liberal Democrats, who are supposedly the most likely to rebel, the number rises to 85 percent. Let's compare that to the last three Democratic presidents, two of whom faced serious primary challenges: At equivalent points in their presidencies, Bill Clinton had a positive job rating among Democrats of 74 percent; Jimmy Carter's rating was 63 percent; and Lyndon Johnson had a rating of 66 percent. And Carter's and LBJ's numbers had to fall by ten or twenty more points before either attracted another contender. 

The racial politics of the Democratic Party also make a serious primary challenge less likely. Sure, some progressives have been raging at Obama as of late. But anyone credibly threatening to topple Obama would have to pry away a significant chunk of Obama's support among African Americans—and in case you haven't noticed, Obama is the first black president. His job approval rating among African Americans is currently 89 percent, and it has not gone below 85 percent at any point of his presidency. Can you conceive of a left-wing revolt that runs directly counter to the manifest wishes of the largest and most loyal segment of the Democratic base? Imagine Hillary Clinton launching her 2008 candidacy without any of the goodwill that her husband's presidency had engendered among African Americans.

Above all, primary challenges to incumbent presidents require a galvanizing issue. It’s very doubtful that the grab-bag of complaints floated by the Democratic electorate—Obama's legislative strategy during the health care fight; his relative friendliness to Wall Street; gay rights; human rights; his refusal to prosecute Bush administration figures for war crimes or privacy violations—would be enough to spur a serious challenge. And while Afghanistan is an increasing source of Democratic discontent, it’s hardly Vietnam, and Obama has promised to reduce troop levels sharply by 2012.

Most importantly, who would run? Hillary Clinton has ruled it out categorically. Al Gore’s electioneering days appear to be long over. There’s been talk of Russ Feingold running (mainly based on a misunderstanding of an “I’ll be back” statement he made on election night which seems to have referred to a future Senate race). Dean would win headlines, but has a poor reputation in Iowa, where any progressive challenge would have to be launched. There are no guaranteed primary vote-getters out there like Estes Kefauver in 1952, and certainly no one close to the stature of Ted Kennedy. And there's a reason no incumbent president has actually been defeated for re-nomination since the nineteenth century.

So that's it. What we are likely to see is a marginal opponent: a Dennis Kucinich, or a Harold Ford, or some celebrity who hasn’t held office but is willing to spend some money. More serious comers will be chased away by the hard, cold reality of what it would take to mount a presidential campaign against the White House in places like Iowa and Nevada and New Hampshire and South Carolina. And President Obama will be left facing challengers similar to Pete McCloskey or John Ashbrook, who came at Richard Nixon from the left and right, respectively, in 1972. To the extent that these candidates are remembered at all, it’s as roadkill on the way to Nixon’s renomination.

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