Monday, September 5, 2011

Will Obama face a Democratic primary challenge?

President Obama’s approval ratings are plummeting as the summer of discontent draws to a close. The most recent polls show the president’s approval ratings at or near historic lows. Gallup showed the president with a 38 percent approval rating at the end of August, while a Rasmussen poll from early September showed that only 19 percent of voters strongly approve of President Obama’s job performance and that 40 percent strongly disapprove. A Gallup poll taken in early August showed Obama’s approval in Georgia at 48 percent.

Recent economic reports offer evidence that the president’s approval rating will not rebound in the near future. In August, the U.S. economy lost exactly as many jobs as it created for a net change of zero in the unemployment rate. Home prices are slightly higher than July, but down substantially from 2010. U.S. GDP growth was approximately one percent in the second quarter. Government estimates for both the first and second quarters were later revised down. Taken together with other economic vital signs, this means that it is likely that the economy is falling into a second recession in spite of everything that President Obama has tried.

As far back as February, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich called for Democrats to mount a primary challenge against President Obama. Now with Obama’s policies failing and his approval rating dropping, it seems that the field is open for other progressives to challenge the president’s re-election. However, with less than six months to go until the first primaries of the 2012 election season, time is running out for Democratic challengers to enter the race. The Georgia primary is tentatively set for March 6.

In the wake of the catastrophic Democratic losses of 2010, few Democrats seem eager to challenge President Obama for the right to face the Republican challenger. With the economy continuing to falter and many of Obama’s legislative victories, such as Obamacare, still deeply unpopular with voters, the election will likely be an uphill battle for Democrats.

Historically, primary challenges to incumbent presidents are also an uphill battle. The election of 1896 is that last time that a sitting president who wanted to run again was refused the nomination by his party. In that year, President Grover Cleveland lost the Democratic nomination to William Jennings Bryan. Arthur Sewall was nominated for vice president. Bryan also received the nomination of the Populist Party, although with a different vice presidential candidate. Thomas E. Watson of Thomson, Ga., who later served as a Georgia senator, became the Populist candidate for vice president. Bryan, Sewall and Watson lost to the Republican candidates, William McKinley and Garrett Hobart.

An additional problem in challenging Barack Obama is that any Democrat who ran against the president would be open to charges of racism. Many of President Obama’s supporters have leveled this charge at conservatives and Tea Party members who have criticized the president’s policies and would be likely to use the same tactic against a fellow Democrat.

Being labeled as a racist would make it almost impossible to win the Democratic nomination. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 19 percent of Democrats were black. Another 11 percent were Hispanic. Charges of racism would seriously inhibit a candidate’s ability to win the votes of this third of the Democratic Party.

Further, President Obama continues to enjoy strong support from black voters. Exit polling from 2008 by Politico showed that 96 percent of blacks voted for Obama. A more recent Gallup poll shows that although the president’s support among blacks has declined slightly, 83 percent still approve of him and would presumably vote for him. This is compared to 40 percent approval from the nation at large and 75 percent approval from all Democrats. Because black voters make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party and have an above-average approval for the president, it becomes even more difficult for a challenger, who may not be a minority, to win the necessary votes for the nomination.

These factors together with the short time until the first primaries make it unlikely that President Obama will face a challenge from the left for the Democratic nomination in 2012. Potential Democratic candidates, sensing another Republican sweep, will choose to wait until 2016 and run either as Barack Obama’s successor or as a challenger to a Republican incumbent.

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