Do Contested Primaries Hurt?

On October 15, 2007, in General, by Neil Stevens

Haystack brought our attention to an article which suggested that the Republicans cannot afford to have a hard-fought primary because next year is supposed to be a Democratic Year™. Implicit in this claim is that a contested primary is a hindrance to a candidate for President, and being a curious type, I think we should see if that’s actually the case.


In 1960 the Republicans nominated Richard Nixon with little trouble, as Nelson Rockefeller decided not to challenge the Vice-President, and Barry Goldwater proved his heistation correct by gathering a whopping 10 delegates. The Democrats however had two separate fights: John Kennedy defeated Hubert Humphrey in the primaries, and then had to take on Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson at the convention.

Result: The battler Kennedy defeats the benefit of the coronation, Nixon. Score: 1-0 in favor of the contested races.


In 1964 President Johnson had no difficulty winning the primaries, but had to deal with a fracture in his convention over civil rights. On the other side, the Republicans had a wide open fight eventually won by Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Scranton who all took shots at stopping the conservative.


Result: Johnson in a landslide over the primary-tested Goldwater. Score: 1-1.

In 1968 both parties formally had wide open contests, though Richard Nixon easily drove off in turn Ronald Reagan and the anti-war candidates Nelson Rockefeller and the “brainwashed” George Romney. The Democrats meanwhile suffered the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the rise of the radical left and their candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, and finally riots in Chicago before nominating Hubert Humphrey. Meanwhile a whole wing of the Democrats left to go nominate George Wallace.

Result: Nixon in a landslide over the split Democrats Wallace and Humphrey. Score 2-1 for the primary cakewalk candidates.


In 1972 half of America’s Democrats ran to challenge Richard Nixon, with 19 candidates getting votes at the DNC. Party unity was helped by the shooting of George Wallace, but once again the early frontrunner went down as Ted Kennedy’s behavior at Chappaquiddick was exposed. So the acid-roots fought the establishment, and George McGovern beat Ed Muskie. Meanwhile Nixon dusted off some pacifists and took all but one delegate at the RNC.

Result: Nixon again. Score 3-1 against contested primaries.


In 1976 President Gerald Ford faced the voters nationally for the first time, and Ronald Reagan made him fight the whole way down the line, attacking the President for failing to do more to aid South Vietnam, for being soft on the Soviet Union, and for trying to give away the Panama Canal. 1976 was another mess for the Democrats, but Jimmy Carter battled through the primaries and caucuses, just eventually siphoning off enough delegates to take control before perceived liberals like Jerry Brown could knock off the perceived conservative Georgian.


Result: Carter came out of the multiway race to squeak by Ford who only had one real challenger. Score: 3-2.

In 1980 Governor Ronald Reagan was the frontrunner and ran like one, which left an opening for former CIA Director George H. W. Bush to get his hands dirty and gain the “Big Mo” by winning the Iowa Straw Poll and Caucuses. But Ronald Reagan had little trouble after sweeping the South. Meanwhile on the Democratic side, Ted Kennedy took a shot at the President and appeared to be the frontrunner, but his candidacy fell apart after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others took Americans hostage in Iran, and Carter won the DNC balloting with a 2-1 delegate advantage.


Result: Both candidates had about equal opposition, so I’ll score this one a tie. Score 3-2-1 in favor of the uncontested primaries.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan had no real opposition, and the Democrats had a big fight over who would get clobbered, with Walter Mondale eventualy beating Gary Hart and Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson.

Result: Reagan won again, not having made use of his opponent’s youth and inexperience. Score 4-2-1 in favor of uncontested primaries.


In 1988 the Democrats again had a frontrunner fall flat on his face, as Gary “Monkey Business” Hart rose and fell. William Jefferson Clinton backed out at the last minute, so that left the race between Joseph “Kinnock” Biden, “Iron” Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore, and Jesse Jackson. Super Tuesday was split almost evenly between Dukakis, Gore, and Jackson, but Dukakis eventually pulled away and only Jackson didn’t drop out. Republicans had a much easier time, as the “kinder, gentler” George H. W. Bush rode President Reagan’s popularity over Robert Dole and Pat Robertson to win Super Tuesday and the nomination.

Result: Reagan won for a third time. 5-2-1 uncontested primaries.

GHW Bush

In 1992 Patrick Buchanan tried to beat President George “Read My Lips” Bush, but that attempt fizzled after New Hampshire. And for once the Democrats didn’t have a frontrunner fall apart on them, but instead a rising star in Bill “Gennifer Flowers” Clinton come back from early losses to win the thing. Jerry Brown again tried a late push for his party’s nomination, and again failed.

Result: Ross Perot fouls everything up, and Clinton wins with 43% of the popular vote. Score: 5-3-1.


In 1996, the Republicans had their turn with a mess of a primary season, though Robert Dole got into gear to win out over Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes after some early losses. The Democrats were content to sit back and let their adulterer stay in office, shockingly favoring President Clinton over Lyndon LaRouche.

Result: Bob Dole being Bob Dole couldn’t do enough, so President Clinton gets re-elected. Score: 6-3-1.

GW Bush

In 2000 the races for both parties shaped up much like the 1980 races, with George W. Bush holding off John McCain, and Vice President Albert “Love Story” Gore wiping out “Dollar” Bill Bradley. McCain was more successful than Bradley, however, running strong all the way to South Carolina, and even winning some states after that, while Gore beat Bradley in all fifty states.

Result: Bush had to beat up on McCain before squeaking by Gore. Score: 6-4-1.


In 2004 Wartime President Bush was unopposed, while the Democrats reverted to form and had frontrunner Howard “Yeeeeeeargh!” Dean fall flat on his face after New Hampshire, leaving John Kerry to win with that performance seared into his memory.

Result: Bush wins the first popular vote majority since 1988. Score: 7-4-1

So there we have it. In a first superficial check of the results, having strong primary competition is bad for a party. However I believe we all can see that in some cases there is a common root cause behind both a candidate’s lack of primary competition and his lack of difficulty in winning the Presidency. Lyndon Johnson literally had the ghost of John Kennedy behind him in some campaign materials, while Ronald Reagan was widely popular in leading our country’s charge out of stagflation and against Communism. I believe it silly to blame their wins on their opponents having contested primaries.

So in conclusion, I don’t think it matters how long it takes for a party to get together. As long as the party isn’t split on election day in November (see the Democrats in 1968), victory or defeat depends on the candidates, the issues, and the mood of the country more than what happened at the Iowa Caucuses.

My source for all these races is Wikipedia, unfortunately. Pointers to better sources are most welcome.


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