Do Primary Challenges from a Party’s Wings Change How Presidents Govern?

Ryan Cooper wants dovish former Senator Russ Feingold to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary:

Feingold would almost certainly lose….But winning wouldn’t be the point — the point would be to make Clinton worry about her left flank. Though she seems to be a true hawk, she surely realizes that Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War was his most important advantage in 2008. All Feingold would have to do is mount a credible enough challenge to get Clinton to promise not to invade random countries for no reason.

Ryan is invoking a widely-believed theory regarding the value of quixotic primary campaigns: The candidate may lose but his or her ideas will draw support, which will move the eventual President in a desired direction. This is an empirical proposition and I wonder whether or not it has generally proved true in U.S. political history.

Setting aside the cases of strong challenges from the wings (e.g., Reagan versus Ford in 1976, Kennedy versus Carter in 1980) that didn’t influence the expected future president because the candidate who got beat up in the primary went on to lose the general, are there data to support the theory that Ryan articulates so well?

I can think of one imperfectly supporting example, which is Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. He had his own party and so was not truly a primary threat to the other candidates, but he was definitely someone from outside of the political mainstream with whom the other candidates had to grapple. Although Perot never had a chance to win, he did put the growing national debt on the public agenda and Bill Clinton’s subsequent Presidential Administration took up the issue in its fiscal policy. On the other hand, Jerry Brown is an example of someone who challenged from the wings in a party primary (actually, several of them) without seeming to change the winning candidate’s positions. One can imagine an even worse result for an upstart candidate than Brown’s non-impact: A challenge from the wings that makes a future President less likely to adopt the challengers’ views because the primary generates lingering bad blood between party factions. I can’t think of an example where that happened off the top of my head, but I bleg you to put one forward in the comments if you can think of one.

Looking for more systematic data on the impact of challenges from the wings, I contacted two political science experts: Jonathan Bernstein and John Sides. They both kindly got back to me quickly, and what follows is my understanding of what they told me (i.e., all errors mine).

Jonathan pointed out that presidents do generally try to keep their campaign promises, a point which Ryan echoed in his article. This does not necessarily mean however that a primary candidate in a strong position (e.g., Hillary Clinton) would feel the need to make any promises in the face of a challenge from someone (e.g., Russ Feingold) who looked very likely to lose (Ned Reskinoff develops this point at length).

John Sides pointed me to two academic articles. Neither is precisely on point regarding Presidential elections but both nonetheless provide important information using data from Congress. Hirano and colleagues found little evidence that having been challenged in a primary shifts a politician to the wing of his or her party post-election. The authors note that general elections can move politicians back towards the middle even if they had to tack hard right or left to win a primary. A similar conclusion was reached in a different study conducted by Michael Peress.

Though both throw some cold water on it, neither study in my opinion definitively rejects the theory that challenges from the wings can move an ultimate election winner in the challengers’ political direction in an enduring way. It’s definitely a question meriting further study and debate (which I hope everyone will engage in. In aid thereof I have linked to ungated pdfs of both papers). Many campaigns are launched on the assumption that the political influence process Ryan Cooper describes pans out in practice. If it does, people on the wings of a political party may wish to employ quixotic challenges more frequently. On the other hand, if the theory is one of those logical sounding but factually incorrect “rules of politics”, people on the wings of a political party would be wiser to adopt other strategies to push their agenda.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Do Primary Challenges from a Party’s Wings Change How Presidents Govern?”

  1. "It’s definitely a question meriting further study and debate (which I hope everyone will engage in.)"

    I am intrigued by the premise put forth by Mr. Cooper, and moreso by the question you pose in response. I love to read about actual research into widely held beliefs (and myths). But I suggest, as well, that your statement in re Mr. Cooper's proposal is itself a sound reason for quixotic promary challenges–to force further study and debate of the issues raised by the challenge.

    An election is a race with a finish line and a winner, but politics itself is a continual process, in which candidates and winners may or may not move in one direction or another in real time, but political parties and the entire nation move more slowly, generally with continual exertion of steady pressure by true believers. Those quixotic challenges may be the best way for important issues to be thrust into the spotlight for study and debate, not only by the politicians but by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as well.

  2. The hypothesis may be stronger in a more general form: a strong challenge from the wings shifts the Overton window: what's on the agenda, what counts as a mainstream position. Edwards' losing primary campaign against Obama and HRC in 2008 is often said to have put healthcare reform on the Democratic map. It certainly didn't start as a central; plank of Obama's candidacy; and it's become the signal achievement of his presidency.

    In two-round presidential elections as in France, the Overton window effect creates a strong incentive for "hopeless" candidates to stand in the first round. The value of endorsement in the second round reinforces the agenda aspect.

    1. Are you sure you have your years right? Maybe the Edwards health care plan was in 2004? I don't remember anyone paying all that much attention to Edwards in 2008, and I recall Obama and Clinton campaigning on health care pretty significantly long before the Iowa caucuses.

      1. No. You are wrong. Edwards was major in 2008 before imploding and did stake out the health care ground.

    2. James wrote

      a strong challenge from the wings shifts the Overton window

      That's a related hypotheses, and one that could be tested empirically. But I don't think the Edwards case is relevant because the people who put national health care reform on the map prior to HRC's presidential run were…the Clintons (their very high profile, failed effort when he was POTUS and she ran the health care reform task force).

  3. Further political science research needed…..without federal funding given the House’s budget axe to such research.

    I like the more general form where a wing candidate can end up staking a position that becomes more mainstream during the campaign, lose and have the position adopted. I’d like to also see research on how the length of a politician’s career affects their ability to campaign successfully in the future. It’s clear Obama got the message that a longer Senate career would only further limit his chances at the Presidency representing a strong contrast to Hillary 2016.

  4. Does a strong primary challenge imply, or create, weakness on the part of the candidate?

    You "set aside" two cases, but there aren't really that many. And don't forget the McCarthy challenge to LBJ, which had a similar effect.

    I'd say it's symptomatic of intra-party divisions that generally weaken the campaign. So the challenges may move the election winner in the opposite direction, by making the opposing party's candidate the winner.

  5. It seems to me that the people funding a primary challenge could probably get more bang for their buck spending the same money either on the successful mainstream candidate, or as independent expenditure. Bring voters to the table (or get some voters for the other side off the table) and some serious dough, and surely attention is going to be paid.

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