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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.