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The Difficulties of Campaigning Against the Incumbent President

Updated: Mar 23

Before presidential candidates were selected by primaries and caucuses, party leaders played a prominent role in the selection process. When an incumbent president sought reelection, party leaders could either try shutting down potential challengers or try to slowly pass the nomination to another potential candidate. This happened four times in the 19th century. Four Vice-Presidents automatically became President following their predecessor’s death. One of the reasons to explain these results is their status was probably too weak to be nominated as a presidential candidate based on the fact they never won any electoral college votes.


In modern U.S. history, party leaders still influence the selection process, but they are much less powerful. They can either support or discourage people from voting for the incumbent president, or they can rally support for a new candidate even if the incumbent president has not lost the party nomination. However, many close races showed the weaknesses of the incumbents and the parties, so incumbents always were supported by their party. 


The most notable close race happened in 1952 during the democratic primaries. Harry Truman was hesitant to seek reelection partially because of his low approval rating, but he let the Democratic National Convention put his name on the ballot. Truman finally decided to not run another time when he lost the first primary, in New Hampshire, to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. Truman’s situation showed a significant division in the party following the decision to add a civil rights plank to the party platform, dividing the Northern Democrats and many a coalition of Southern Democrats.


In 1980, Jimmy Carter almost lost the state primaries against Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, notably in California and New York, two populated states. Kennedy dropped out only in August during the Democratic National Convention, which also showed divided support for the incumbent president from his party.


Dean Phillips is the last main challenger of incumbent President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. Phillips launched his presidential bid back in October stating he wanted to “strengthen” President Joe Biden and not diminish the president’s reputation. His initial strategy was to represent a new voice to a younger generation wanting a change in the presidential bid.


However, his campaign struggled from the start, standing far behind Biden in the polls when Robert Kennedy was still in the Democratic race. Phillips’s campaign strategy was then altered, distancing himself from Biden. He started questioning Biden’s physical ability to govern as an octogenarian. He then called Biden a threat to democracy due to his lack of mental acuity, calling out his confused statements.

Phillips’s campaign took another fall recently when he announced that he would lay off multiple staff members of his campaign. He is still running, but everything could come to an end on Super Tuesday on March 5th.

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