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Presidential Primaries: A recipe for defeat

In the United States, a primary challenge of an incumbent president running for nomination for a second term bid is no longer palatable. History has shown that intra-party primary, particularly when someone wants to deny a sitting president a re-nomination ticket, has proved detrimental to the party that occupies the White House. Not only that the challengers eventually lose, but those incumbent presidents who fought for the nomination of their party, have always lost to their opponents in the general election. Thus, there seems to be less appetite for one to mulishly mount a primary challenge of an incumbent president for fear of being blamed for the party’s eventual loss of the presidency.

So, the intra-party primary challenges in the recent history have resulted in an incumbent losing the presidency or his seat, in case of the Congress. In 1980, Senator Ted Kennedy mounted a vigorous primary challenge against his party’s incumbent President Jimmy Carter, whose support within the party was ebbing. Exploiting the division, Senator Ted Kennedy sought to deny President Carter the party’s nomination. The infamous, but rancorous 1980 Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses created a wider crevice in the party, which was difficult to close before the general election. Well, the primaries culminated in the Democratic National Convention in New York on August 11-14, 1980 where President Carter was re-nominated. But the damage to the national ticket had been done. Because of the intense primaries coupled with Iran hostage situation, President Carter was a one-term president losing to Ronald Reagan, a Republican.

President George Herbert Walker Bush, a Republican was a one-term president from January 20, 1989 – January 20, 1993 in part because of a vigorous primary challenge that was loosely centered on ideological purity. Also, some segments of his party were unhappy with him because he broke the “no new taxes” pledge. Seizing the opportunity offered by the waning support for the president, Patrick Joseph “Pat” Buchanan, White House Communications Director (1985–1987) under President Ronald Reagan, mounted a primary challenge against George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992. Seeking the Republican presidential nomination against an incumbent president by Buchanan contributed in creating a major division within the party, as well as chipping away support for President George H.W. Bush, thus resulting in Bush losing to President Clinton. Also, there was the “Perot factor” that helped deny Bush a reelection victory.

In 1992 and 1996, Henry Ross Perot, who had an identical Republican political ideology, sought the Republican presidential nomination. When he failed to win the nomination in 1992, he ran in the general election as an Independent Party Presidential Candidate. Four years later, he ran for president again. In both cases, Perot significantly hurt the Republican presidential candidate electorally. He chipped away enough votes from already sapped Republican candidates to affect the outcome of both elections.

Learning from the jinx of primary challenges, it is no longer party’s palate to primary the incumbent president. So, Bill Clinton, from January 20, 1993 to January 20, 2001, did not have any viable challenger within his party in 1996. In the same token, George Walker Bush
January 20, 2001 – January 20, 2009, did not have a primary challenger when he was running for reelection in 2004.

Obviously, President Barack Obama, who was sworn-in on January 20, 2009, did not attract a primary challenger in 2012. At the time the Republican primary candidates were battling for the presidential ticket, President Obama was consolidating his support among various demographics and planning for the onslaught of the general election vigorous campaign. Due to advantage of time and resources, among other things, he went on to win his reelection soundly.

In any case, intraparty primary challenge is not limited to the presidential candidates and incumbents. Interestingly, the same parallel could be drawn on the incumbents in the Senate and House. These individuals rarely attract primary challengers for fear of losing their seniority in their respective chambers. For instance, the retiring Democratic Rep. John Dingell, longest-serving congressman from Michigan, who has served for over 58 years in the House and will not seek reelection in November 2014, chaired prominent committees because of his seniority and experience. Similarly, John Conyers and Charles B. Rangel, who are not retiring, have served for over 49 years and 43 years respectively have originated important bills from their respective committees they chaired in the past. There were some who died while serving in Congress. While Late Robert Bird served in both House and Senate 57 years, 176 days, Ted Kennedy served in the Senate for 46 years, 292 days before his death. They both shepherd important bills that became landmark laws in the country.

However, among those first elected in 2010 to Congress, Republican Congressman Ben Quayle, Democratic Congressman Hansen Clarke and Republican Congressman Sandra “Sandy” Adams lost their primaries and did contest in 2012. These individuals did not have opportunity to garner longevity that would have helped them to gain the legislative experience and skills their constituencies needed. A constituency benefits from the seniority of its representatives in form of plum leadership roles and beckons the Congressmen and Congresswomen bring home.
As a result, turnover in any law-making body is anathema to experience and skills set required in making effective human-oriented laws, as wells laws that spur economic development of a nation. The legislature of any country is not meant for a novice, who does not have the pedigree to be an effective law-maker.

Obviously, a primary challenge of an incumbent president is a lugubrious contraption inimical to a ruling party whose cohesion is frail and party identity less enthusiastic, but recuperating. Therefore, it is not to the party’s delectation when someone mulishly challenges an incumbent president, who appears to be running for reelection in a political environment where the opposition is gathering storm. If the party wants to hold on to power, it will be wise if its members coalesce around a unified candidate—an incumbent whose antecedents are in the public domain. It is sufficiently clear that mounting a primary challenge against an incumbent president is detrimental to the party in power. Such a challenge will create rancor and animosity that will further weaken the party during the presidential election. Therefore, a primary challenge of a sitting president is a recipe for defeat in the general election.

Apparently, the phenomenon was on President Muhammadu Buhari’s mind when he timely cleared the deck for the second term. The APC has undoubtedly set in motion a plausible machination to enhance its electoral victory by having a consensus presidential candidate.


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