Republicans may think that their midterm triumph bodes ill for President Obama's re-election hopes, but such beliefs are not borne out by history. The incumbent president's party typically does poorly in a midterm election. This time, however, there was an ominous hint of a potential problem for Obama. In his concession speech, the media thought that Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold may have been referring to a presidential bid when he said, "It's on to 2012!" Although Feingold's spokesman rejected that interpretation, a primary challenger would be the absolute worst sign for Obama for 2012.
It would not be a major problem if Feingold or another prominent challenger - Howard Dean's name has been floated, though he denies any interest in running - ran as a third-party candidate, as Republican-turned-independent congressman John Anderson did in 1980. Though a third-party run could take votes from Obama, such challengers - especially ones without boatloads of cash - are usually easy enough to dismiss. But a Democratic primary challenge - even one that has no shot at succeeding - could present real threats to Obama's re-election.
Presidential history tells the tale. Since 1900, presidents have been remarkably successful at winning re-election. Those seeking a second term have won at more than a 2-1 clip, a marked change from the 19th century in which one-termers were the order of the day. If we count the four men who stepped up in a first term because of the death of his predecessor - Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson - 12 presidents have won re-election, and Franklin Roosevelt won it three times. None faced serious primary challenges in his re-election campaign. In the last century, only six presidents who sought reelection lost (though in Gerald Ford's case, he sought an original election). All but Herbert Hoover faced a noteworthy primary challenge.
Some of these challenges were very serious. In fact, primaries were stamped onto the national consciousness in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft. But after that, primaries did not play a big role again until the 1960s. Although some question whether Truman would have run in 1952 had Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver not won the New Hampshire primary, there was not another primary race as we know them today against an incumbent for the White House until 1968. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy's run in New Hampshire, coupled with New York Sen. Robert Kennedy's entering the race, knocked Lyndon Johnson out. In 1976, following the Watergate scandal, Ford barely defeated Ronald Reagan's challenge.
Jimmy Carter's 1980 re-election campaign took a fatal beating from Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's primary challenge. And the least serious of all of these primary contenders, Pat Buchanan, embarrassed George H.W. Bush in 1992 by garnering 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.
Each of these primaries punctured the respective president's aura of inevitability and curtailed any attempts to use a Rose Garden strategy of sticking close to the White House rather than campaigning around the country.
Primary fights aren't necessarily bad; for a first-time candidate, it can be a positive experience. It gets the candidate out in the public eye and allows him to test his ability on a new stage. But for an incumbent, it can be catastrophic. A president who gets challenged may be damaged before the race because of scandal or policy problems. But the primary challenger takes it one step further, as he or she is able to show the president as weak and unable to fully unite his party. It also gives the disgruntled members of the party an outlet for their frustration. And even if the incumbent goes on to win the nomination, a poor result in a primary, such as George H.W. Bush's in 1992, is embarrassing.
Taking Feingold as an example, we could see how hard it would be for a primary challenger to actually win the nomination. Even Feingold's fiercest defenders probably do not believe that he would stand a chance in a presidential race. He is too far to the left, too idiosyncratic and too willing to actually follow campaign finance rules - perhaps the last official in the country who took them to heart. There is little chance that he would raise the hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign funds that would be the minimum necessary to defeat a sitting president. But that doesn't mean he, or another prominent name, couldn't fatally damage Obama's re-election hopes just by running in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A bad midterm election is something that any president should be able to shrug off. With some presidents, such as Bill Clinton, it can be an energizing event that creates a new strategy for re-election. But a primary challenger - even one who has little hope of winning the presidency - is something to fear.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.