By Christianna Silva
In the United States, a president can be president for up to eight years, or two stints of four-year terms. (Franklin D. Roosevelt was the sole exception, as his four consecutive election wins led to a total term of 12 years; it was only after his sudden death that the unwritten rule inspired by George Washington’s declination to a third term became law.) And while it’s rare that a sitting president in his first term wouldn’t seek reelection as his party’s nominee, it’s rarer still that he would face opposition from someone else within that party – but it’s not altogether unheard of.
On April 15, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld announced that he will be officially challenging President Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican Party nomination. “I think our country is in grave peril, and I can no longer sit silently on the sidelines,” he said at an event in New Hampshire upon announcing his exploratory committee. “To compound matters, our president is simply too unstable to carry out the duties of the highest executive office — which include the specific duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed — in a competent and professional matter. He is simply in the wrong place.”
In terms of pedigree, Weld is like a GOP Mad Lib: He is a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1990 and was reelected in 1994 by a record margin. He’s the poster child for moderate Republicanism who married a Roosevelt and ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 2016 with Gary Johnson. Despite all that, it’s unlikely that he’ll beat the president in a primary race, for the sheer fact that such a feat hasn’t happened since Chester Arthur lost his bid at the GOP convention in 1884 — meaning that it’s never happened in modern politics.
And yet Weld isn’t alone this year, as other Republicans, like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, seem to be contemplating challenges themselves. Such discord could make it a whole lot harder for Trump to beat a Democrat in November: Historically, incumbent presidents of the past century who won the nomination after facing serious primary challenges typically went on to lose their general election.
If we’re inclined to listen to the lessons of history (which, in this political climate, is a big *if*), these rare challengers foreshadow failure to win the general election in the fall. Maybe the primary challengers served as an effect, not a cause, of a lost general election, or perhaps it’s just correlation without causation. No matter what, it’s an interesting – and potentially negative – sign that Trump is facing at least one Republican challenger in the primaries. Here’s a look back at the most significant primary challengers and how they affected the incumbents’ chance at maintaining their seat in the White House.
Pat Buchanan primaried George H. W. Bush in 1992
In 1992, Pat Buchanan, a former senior aide to both President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan, challenged then-President Bush. He was a tough competitor at the beginning of the race, running on a nationalist, right-wing approach, which many experts believe served as a precursor to the campaign on which Trump eventually won. During the primaries leading up to the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan received 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, as well as more than 25 percent in 11 other states. His challenge also caused Bush to push his own campaign to the right. Yet by the end of the primary, Buchanan was absolutely wrecked at the polls, bringing in just 23 percent of the popular vote and winning zero delegates. Bush took home the Republican nomination.
Bush went on to lose to Bill Clinton in the general election, who brought home five million more votes than Bush did; that chasm was widened even further by third-party candidate Ross Perot, who famously wrangled a solid 19 million votes of his own. Some political analysts, like the New York Times’s Richard Berke, place blame on Buchanan for Bush’s ultimate loss, saying his apparent acceptance of Buchanan’s extremism may have cost him votes in the general election. In 1999 Washington Post reporter David S. Broder surmised that Buchanan revealed wariness about Bush within his own party.
In 1996, Buchanan vied again for the Republican nomination; Bob Dole won that nomination, but lost to Clinton. That wasn’t the end of Buchanan's political career, however, or his impact; in 2017, he ominously told Politico, “The ideas made it, but I didn’t.”
Ted Kennedy primaried Jimmy Carter in 1980
President Jimmy Carter wasn’t doing so well heading into his 1980 reelection campaign. He had remarkably low poll ratings, which mixed poorly with his remarkably high confidence, according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. When reporters told Carter that Senator Edward Kennedy was challenging him in the primary, Carter said: “I’ll whip his ass.”
Carter won renomination, but whip ass he did not; Kennedy took 12 delegates and 37 percent of the vote. Carter went into the general election wounded, while Ronald Reagan cruised to the Republican nomination. In November, Carter lost the general election to Reagan by nearly 10 percentage points.
Ronald Reagan primaried Gerald Ford in 1976
Reagan defeating Carter in 1980 wasn’t his first foray into politics; in 1976, he mounted a primary challenge against President Gerald Ford. Ford was an incumbent, sure, but an abnormal one: he had only taken the seat after Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and had never actually won a presidential election. Even still, he won the Republican primary after bringing in just 43 more delegates and fewer than one million more votes than Reagan.
In November, Ford lost to Carter by just two percentage points and fewer than 60 electoral votes.
Pete McCloskey attempted to primary Richard Nixon in 1972
McCloskey, a Republican representative from California who ran on an anti-war platform, received 20 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary before pulling out of the race. Nixon then sailed to a GOP nomination and went on to win the general election. (Of course, he eventually had to resign in 1974… but not even a primary contender would have been likely to predict the Watergate scandal, and its ensuing fallout.)
Robert Kennedy primaried Lyndon Johnson in 1968
In 1968, Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was primaried by Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson quickly withdrew after Robert F. Kennedy entered it, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, entered the race. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, and Humphrey won the Democratic nomination. In the final race, Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, won the election by less than one million popular votes.
Everyone primaried Harry Truman in 1952
Then-President Harry Truman entered the 1952 race with a plummeting popularity rating as the Korean War dragged on to its third year. The Democrat was primaried by a whopping five other candidates, including Estes Kefauver, Pat Brown, Richard Russell Jr., Hubert Humphrey, and W. Averell Harriman. Truman ultimately did not seek reelection. Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, won the Democratic nomination, but lost the general election to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won by more than 10 percentage points in a landslide victory.