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Why Tuesday's Democratic Primaries Matter

Why Tuesday's Democratic Primaries Matter

By Sean Trende - May 24, 2012


Tuesday night, President Obama continued his streak of poor primary performances in culturally Southern states. He received 58.4 percent of the vote in the Arkansas Democratic primary against token opposition, and 57.9 percent of the vote in the Kentucky primary against no opposition (42.1 percent of the vote went to "uncommitted"). In the latter state's Harlan County, in the heart of coal country, Obama received 26.2 percent of the vote.

This comes on the heels of losing 40.6 percent of the vote in West Virginia to a Texas prison inmate, 21 percent of the vote to “uncommitted” in North Carolina, 24 percent of the vote to token opposition in Louisiana, 19 percent of the vote to “uncommitted” in Alabama, and 43 percent of the vote to various candidates in Oklahoma.

To be clear, with the exception of North Carolina, none of these states is in play. Obama is expected to lose West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas badly in the fall. He had similar problems with these states in the 2008 Democratic primaries, losing West Virginia and Kentucky by massive margins to Hillary Clinton even after he was acknowledged as the Democratic nominee. And Obama remains very popular overall with the Democratic base.

But there are three ways in which these states really do matter.

1) This is beginning to function as an unprecedented primary challenge to Obama.

Using my handy “C.Q. Guide to U.S. Elections,” I went back to the birth of presidential primaries in 1912. There are only seven sitting presidents who have ever received less than 60 percent of the vote in any primary: Taft in ’12; Coolidge, ’24; Hoover, ’32; LBJ, ’68; Ford '76; Carter, ’80; and Bush ’92. All of these presidents, with the exception of Coolidge, were not re-elected -- and he eventually faced a substantial third-party challenge from one of his primary challengers.

Moreover, consider the men who brought these challenges: former President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, Sen. Bob LaFollette in 1924, Sen. Joseph France of Maryland in 1932, Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976, Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980, and TV commentator Pat Buchanan in 1992. Obviously the quality here varies substantially, but all of these upstarts began with a much stronger national profile than Keith Judd or John Wolfe.

I think we can reasonably begin to view this as a sort of organic primary challenge to Obama, which runs strongly in the Southern and border states. Obama’s not likely to lose any states outright in the primaries; think of this more like Buchanan’s run against George H.W. Bush in 1992.

This is only relevant because a lot of people attribute some significance to the fact that Obama, unlike the other presidents who lost in postwar America, has avoided a substantial primary challenge. I’ve always been skeptical that this is the proper metric. Primary challenges strike me as a symptom, not a cause, of presidential weakness. Just as diseases can be present without all symptoms, presidential weakness can be present without a primary challenge. And, as always, we should be skeptical when making judgments on the basis of a fairly small number of observations.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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