Will 2010 be the year of the primary challenge?
For all the talk of anti-incumbent fever, we've not actually seen that many incumbents defeated in primary challenges yet. Bill Halter has forced Blanche Lincoln into a runoff, but we don't know who'll win. Bob Bennett didn't lose in a primary; he lost in a convention poll that chooses the candidates who get to compete in Utah's Republican primary. Arlen Specter left the Republican Party to avoid a primary challenge and then lost in a Democratic primary. Perhaps the best example of a straightforward primary challenge was Alan Mollohan's loss to Mike Oliviero in West Virginia.
But primaries -- and the anti-incumbency sentiment that's supposedly generating them -- are the big news of the day. To get some context, I called Robert Boatright, a professor of political science at Clark University. Boatright had previously written a paper (pdf) tallying every primary challenge in which the challenger received more than 25 percent of the vote since 1970. It's an interesting data set, and as you can see in the graph atop this post, it suggests that, in the aggregate, serious primary challenges are declining rather than increasing. That doesn't mean 2010 won't see a spike (look at how 1992 skews those results), but it helps keep things in perspective.
Boatright predicts that "when the 2010 election is over and we look back at the number of challenges, it'll probably be about what it was in 2006 or 2008." The media attention, he says, is evidence of another trend he pointed out in the paper: Activist groups such as the Club for Growth, MoveOn.org and others have become better at picking a couple of primary challenges a cycle and pushing them aggressively to both their constituents and the national media. But that can't drive very many primary challenges: "These groups have a limited fundraising base," Boatright says. "The people who would contribute money can make a difference if all of them are thinking about Arkansas and Pennsylvania, but not if they're thinking about a dozen races."
But as you can see with the spike in primaries in 1992, there are years when the mood of the country tilts sharply against incumbents and all bets are off. It's probably too soon to say whether we're in one of those yet, but there's a self-fulfilling nature to this stuff: Now that the media is saying all incumbents are in danger it's probably going to be easier for challengers to get funded and get people excited about their candidacies, which could in turn make their candidacies more likely to succeed. A long-shot campaign that would've been ignored in 2004 might get serious attention in 2010, and that might lift it from long-shot status altogether.
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