Thursday, June 24, 2010

Impact of Challenging an Incumbent in a Primary

In 1912, former President Teddy Roosevelt challenged incumbent President William Howard Taft in some of the earliest Republican primaries. While the electorate showed their support for Roosevelt, he was unable to win over the Republican establishment. Roosevelt went on to create a new party and Taft went on to sorely lose the general election. In the end they both lost the presidency, and in November 1912 Woodrow Wilson was elected the 28th President of the United States.

It seems that primaries with incumbents haven’t changed much over the last century. The illustration above depicts the cat fight that unfolded before the American electorate in 1911, but it also could easily be confused for several primaries today. The outcome of the Roosevelt-Taft battle could likely be the fate of many of today’s incumbents facing primary challengers.

This year we’ve seen voters in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas make the choice between old faithful and new blood. Soon we’ll see voters in Arizona do the same.

Now that we are on to the general elections in TX, PA and AR, we begin to wonder how such a nasty in-party battle will impact popularity, images and agendas. Does it hurt more than normal primary elections?

In Texas, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged sitting Governor Rick Perry. Three months later, our polls show that neither Perry nor Hutchison have fared well as a result of the election. Even though Perry has a campaign to run and an election to win, Texas Republicans are still choosing sides.

Republicans aren’t excited about Hutchison and they don’t want her to run again. 47% of Republicans approve of Hutchison. If she was to run for reelection 41% of voters in her own party said they would vote against her. These numbers wouldn’t be so dismal if they crossed party lines, but Hutchison can’t rally even her own base. Republicans aren’t happy she instilled doubt in Rick Perry in the minds of Texan voters.

Though Perry is more popular amongst Republicans, Republicans are still hesitant to give him high marks, suggesting that Hutchison was successful in questioning his ability to lead the state. 58% of Republicans support the Governor, only a 7 point gain from the primary. He’ll need much more than that to win the general election.

With only 36% approval rating, he is in a dead heat against his opponent Bill White. White carries 15% of the Republican vote, while only 10% of Democrats throw their support in favor of Perry. We can only wonder how high these numbers could have been had he not faced off against someone in his own party.

This particular primary was an unfortunate event for Texas Republicans—two of the leading state Republicans went head to head tearing at each other’s records and integrity. Republicans will have a difficult time winning the gubernatorial election and maybe even Hutchison’s future election without a united base.

Primaries when incumbents come out on top, but are forced to defend their honor, incite doubt and anger in the voter. Voters from within in the party grow angry with the mud slinging that leads to a disjointed front. Voters across party lines question the quality of incumbent that its own party felt the need to challenge.

Challengers argue that approval ratings are already low and incumbents are already likely to lose in the general election. But there is no doubt that they certainly remind voters of the incumbents’ faults. Even if challengers win the primary, they face an uphill battle.

Joe Sestak lacks the name recognition of his former opponent Arlen Specter. 43% of Democrats are unsure about their opinion of the candidate, while 46% of Democrats approve of Senator Specter’s job performance. Just like Governor Perry, Sestak is in a dead heat with his opponent Pat Toomey. Similarly to Perry 14% of Sestak’s own party support his opponent.

An incumbent’s primary challenger may face the same group of disgruntled voters and uncertainty in the polls if chosen as the winner. Some voters are angry that the challenger created cleavages in the party. Others don’t know who the new candidate is and may tie him to the party line. Challengers, if they can win, may have a better chance because being unknown is easier to overcome then being known and disliked.

But they both still face dismal chances. That leaves us asking is it worth the battle? It depends on the motivation of the candidate: is it to win, or to promote a new agenda?

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