Would Hillary Clinton's Candidacy Benefit From a Serious Primary Challenge?

by Michael Dorf

There are now three announced candidates for the Republican nomination for President (Senators Cruz, Paul, and Rubio), with at least another two very likely (former Governor J. Bush and Governor Walker), and the strong possibility of others (e.g., Governor Christie, former Governor Huckabee, former Senator Santorum). That's a crowded field. Meanwhile, former First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State Clinton stands alone on the Democratic side. It's possible that a serious challenger will emerge, but that seems unlikely. The list of potential serious challengers under public discussion is short: VP Biden, who has not ruled out a bid but polls very far behind Clinton and, unlike other also-rans, would have no interest in running for the sake of getting the VP nomination; Senator Warren, who has repeatedly ruled out running; former Governor O'Malley, who is almost completely unknown outside of Maryland and the national political class; former Senator Webb, who looks like he would be running to Clinton's right on foreign policy issues, where there isn't much room in a Democratic primary; and Senator Sanders, who is not even a Democrat.

It is nonetheless possible that one of the above could run or that a lesser known candidate could emerge. Here I want to raise a question that is surprisingly difficult to answer: Would that make it more or less likely that Clinton, if she gets the nomination, would win the general election?

The question is difficult to answer because it is unprecedented in the modern era for a non-incumbent to run unopposed in the primaries. There have been prior natural successors to the sitting president. In recent years that has been the VP, although in the 19th Century it was often the Secretary of State. But every sitting VP in the relevant period has faced a primary challenge. Accordingly, we need to look to underlying factors to figure out whether a primary challenge helps or hurts. Note, that I am measuring success here entirely in terms of winning the general, not in terms of becoming a "better" President if elected.

The argument for a primary challenge making the candidate stronger has three main pieces: (1) It "tests" the candidate so that by the time of the general, he or she is an experienced campaigner; (2)  It dulls the public to any scandal-worthy material, much in the way that a good lawyer might elicit damaging testimony from a witness on direct, thus limiting the opportunity for the other side to exploit the same evidence during cross-examination; and (3) The race itself generates publicity for the candidate, so the news media do not simply focus on the other party's (more competitive) campaign.

Of these, I think only number (3) is worth much of anything in Clinton's case. As to (1), she may or may not be a good candidate but she has certainly been tested. As for (2), defanging scandals, it's hard to imagine how this could make a difference one way or the other w/r/t Hillary Clinton. She--and even more so Bill Clinton--have been beset by so many real and imaginary scandals that scandals are already the background noise of her campaign. Number (3) is worth something, however. Unlike a first-term incumbent running unopposed in the primary, Clinton cannot count on actual policy issues to keep her in the news, so she would have to find some way to get the press to pay attention to her campaign during the long period of the Republican contest.

Still, notwithstanding Mark Twain, the publicity the Republicans will receive may not be so enviable, and thus if all that there is to the argument for a competitive primary race is the advantage of publicity, that may not count for all that much.

Now, on the downside, having to compete in the primary means: (1) The risk of being pulled too far from the political center, so that the candidate becomes less attractive to independents in the general; (2) The risk of an "oops" moment; and (3) Wasting money.

Here too, though, I think only number (3) is worth much.

Let's start with (1). The conventional wisdom is that during the primaries, Democrats run left and Republicans run right, while in the general, candidates from both parties run to the center. The obvious danger is that during the primary a candidate needs to stray so far from the center that he or she either says things that will enable the general election opponent to portray him or her as an extremist or, when he or she disavows the extreme stance of the primary in the general, he or she will be subject to criticism as a flip flopper.

The foregoing dynamic strikes me as substantially more plausible for Republicans than for Democrats in the current political climate. That is, the far right exerts more of an influence in Republican primaries than the far left exerts in Democratic primaries. At least that's how things look from where I sit (in, for lack of a better term, the center left). But I don't think my perception of this phenomenon is simply a function of my own ideological bias.

One has to go back to 1972 to find a Democratic candidate who won the primaries as the left-leaning candidate, only to get trounced for that reason in the general. Yes, in 1988 the Bush I campaign portrayed Dukakis as a far-left liberal but that wasn't because Dukakis had run as one in the primaries. The candidate of the left in the 1988 primaries was Jesse Jackson. In the primaries Dukakis faced a more serious threat from the right, in the person of Al Gore.

In 2004, Kerry was portrayed as a flip flopper but the key evidence ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it") was not a product of Kerry saying something leftish in the primary and then centrist in the general. In 2008, Obama ran to the right of Clinton on health care and to the right of Edwards on domestic policy more generally, offering himself as post-partisan. True, Obama ran to the left of Clinton on the Iraq War but given the change in public opinion, this hardly hurt him in the general.

What about Jimmy Carter, who faced a serious primary challenge from his left in 1980 from Ted Kennedy? That challenge was widely regarded as harmful to Carter, but not because Kennedy pulled him to the left. Instead, Kennedy's challenge of an incumbent underscored the narrative of Carter as weak, which was reinforced by Reagan in the general.

Meanwhile, there is also some reason to think that a primary challenge from a party base candidate can benefit a winning centrist. A centrist who prevails as a centrist in the primaries can use that fact to appeal to voters in the general. So while there is a risk of a Democrat being pulled to the left in the primary, there is also the potential benefit of the contrast making her appear more centrist. A strong primary challenge to a Democrat from the left (or to a Republican from the right) poses risks, but a weak challenge of this sort might be beneficial.

Now as to (2), the possibility of an oops moment, debates are (somewhat) unscripted and thus give rise to that possibility, but candidates do everything they can to limit these possibilities, using the debate questions as an opportunity to give canned answers. Moreover, even absent a primary challenger, there are opportunities for oops moments. George Allen wasn't in a debate when he said "macaca," nor was Mitt Romney when he was caught saying that 47% of Americans are lazy takers, nor was John Edwards when he felt pretty, nor was Joe Biden every time he opened his mouth in his various campaigns. If they think it through, Hillary Clinton's people will try to get her some unscripted moments, since her biggest challenge right now is that she comes across as too scripted. Recall that her 2008 tears were probably the high point of that campaign.

Finally we come to (3), money. Before 2008, when major-party candidates invariably accepted public funds for the general election, campaigning in the primary was funded by its own revenue stream: donations subject to spending limits for candidates accepting matching funds. Going to donors in the primary didn't tap them out in the general. But with Clinton (and Bush and possibly other GOP candidates in the primaries) expected to reject federal funding so as to reject federal spending limits, dollars spent to beat back a primary challenge are dollars not spent on the general.

To be sure, donors can make separate primary contributions and additional contributions for the general, so for max donors, money for the primary doesn't dilute money for the general. But that's not true for small donors on whom Democrats more than Republicans rely. Spending $100 in the primary from a donor who can afford to give no more than $100 to Clinton means that that $100 is not available for the general.

Meanwhile, at the high end, a political benefactor who can afford to spend millions on politics will, after maxing out on candidates and parties, devote the remaining millions on unlimited "independent" expenditures. As to that money, matters are basically zero-sum. Every gazillion dollars spent tearing down a member of your own party in the primary is a gazillion dollars not available for tearing down the opponent in the general.

Accordingly, the money angle leads me to conclude that there is at least some net advantage to not facing a serious primary challenge. But that's ex ante and other things being equal. There is enough uncertainty and path dependence in this analysis to lead me to think that it's basically unknowable whether Clinton's path to the White House would be made easier or more difficult by a primary challenger.