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Party Poopers: Presidents Who Faced Stiff Primary Challenges

After the Republican Party’s strong showing in last week’s elections, pundits began speculating that some member of the Democratic Party might decide to challenge Barack Obama for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012. (Howard Dean has already dismissed theories that he might be among the challengers.)

Several previous presidents have faced stiff competition for their parties’ nods. Let’s take a look at three incumbents who didn’t get much party love when it came time to run for a second term:

Ted Kennedy Takes on Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter has done such a bang-up job as an elder statesman and humanitarian since leaving the White House that it’s easy to forget that people weren’t all that jazzed about his presidency. By the time the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York rolled around, large portions of his own party weren’t optimistic that Carter could hold off challenger Ronald Reagan in that fall’s general election.

Senator Ted Kennedy was particularly skeptical of Carter’s political chops, and at various points in Carter’s first term, voters seemed to strongly favor Kennedy over Carter, Chappaquiddick scandal or no Chappaquiddick scandal. (By 1978 polled voters said they preferred Kennedy by a 5-to-3 margin.) As Kennedy mulled mounting a campaign for the Democratic nomination, Carter threw down the gauntlet in 1979 at a White House dinner when he bluntly told a group of Congressmen at a White House dinner, “If Ted Kennedy runs, I’ll whip his ass.”

Despite such fighting words from the future face of Habitat for Humanity, Kennedy decided to make a run for the nomination. The wheels came off the campaign pretty quickly, though. Believe it or not, voters weren’t really all that ready to forget about the fatal Chappaquiddick accident, and questions about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne haunted Kennedy on the campaign trail. (Carter supporters often serenaded Kennedy with chants of “Where’s Mary Jo?”) Carter hammered Kennedy by a 59-31 margin in the Iowa caucuses, and Kennedy’s campaign looked hopeless.

Kennedy kept campaigning, but the results weren’t getting much better. By the time the New York primary rolled around in March, he was teetering on the edge of mathematical elimination. At the last minute, though, the U.S. took a stand against Israeli settlements in the West Bank in a United Nations vote, which sufficiently enraged Jewish voters to swing the giant state from Carter to Kennedy.

Kennedy rode that momentum to big wins in Pennsylvania and California, but by the time the convention began, Carter had clinched the nomination. Kennedy wasn’t done fighting, though. He went to the convention and attempted to challenge the party’s rule that bound delegates to vote for the candidate that had won their primaries or caucus. If he had succeeded, the primary results wouldn’t really have mattered; the convention would have become a free-for-all. The vote didn’t go Kennedy’s way, and Carter secured the nomination.

The speech Kennedy gave on the second night of the convention was one of the highlights of his career. He capped his oration with the line, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” The crowd at Madison Square Garden applauded for 30 minutes when Kennedy finished.

Here’s video of the end of Kennedy’s speech:

Reagan Challenges Ford

Poor Gerald Ford. No matter what he did in office after replacing Richard Nixon, he seemed destined to be remembered for two things: pardoning Nixon and falling down the stairs of Air Force One.

To be fair, the fall was physical comedy gold:

It wasn’t just Chevy Chase’s impersonations that hurt Ford, though. By 1976, the more conservative element of the Republican Party had grown disillusioned with Ford, so California Governor Ronald Reagan mounted a serious campaign to swipe the nomination from the sitting president. Reagan’s campaign hammered Ford for agreeing to give up the Panama Canal and for his policies towards South Vietnam.

The strategy nearly worked. Ford dominated the Northeast and Great Lakes areas’ primaries, but Reagan took California, Virginia, and most of the rest of the West. The race was actually too close to call when the Republican National Convention began in Kansas City. Ford had a slight lead, but he didn’t have enough votes to clinch. Reagan’s team saw a potential opening and tried a last-minute trick to garner support among unpledged moderates. The Gipper announced that he would choose moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker to be his running mate if he won the nomination.

Unfortunately for Reagan, the move blew up in his face. Rather than luring moderates to his side, it mostly enraged his conservative base. Mississippi had been a key state for Reagan, and its delegates voted to go with Ford after the announcement. Ford ended up winning by a 53.29-45.88 margin. To help mend his relationship with the conservative wing of the party, Ford picked Senator Bob Dole to be his running mate. Of course, Jimmy Carter ended up knocking off the Ford/Dole ticket in the general election.

John Tyler Heads Out on His Own

When William Henry Harrison died after a few weeks in office in 1841, John Tyler became the first vice president to ascend to the presidency. While Tyler’s elevation helped set the precedent for presidential succession, it didn’t exactly earn him the respect of the nation; his detractors dubbed Tyler “His Accidency.”

If people didn’t have much regard for Tyler’s path to the White House, they loved him even less when he started making policies. Although he had been elected with Harrison on a Whig ticket, Tyler vetoed most of that party’s policies, and his entire cabinet soon resigned in protest. Tyler had left the Democrats to join the Whig party a few years earlier, so the Democrats weren’t crazy about him, either. In short, his chances of being reelected in 1844 as a man without a party looked pretty grim.

Tyler wanted to stay in office, though, so his supporters held the National Democratic Tyler Convention in Baltimore in May 1844 to nominate Tyler as the presidential candidate of a new third party. Tyler campaigned for a few months as the candidate for this new party against Democratic nominee James K. Polk and Whig candidate Henry Clay, but by August he knew his campaign was hopeless. At the urging of top Democrats like Andrew Jackson, Tyler withdrew from the race and threw his support to Polk in an effort to keep a divided Democratic vote from putting Clay in the White House. It worked out pretty well for Polk, and Tyler left Washington.

Tyler did win one more election, though. He was elected to the House of Representatives of the Confederacy, but he died in 1862 before actually taking office.


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