Primary history is on Trump's side

Primary history is on Trump's side
© Cengiz Yar/Getty Images

Donald Trump often is labeled the “unprecedented president,” but, in at least in one area, he is following a long line of more recent White House predecessors: ease of renomination

Remaining at the top of a presidential ticket was not always so easy. In the era before primaries became a process for popular influence over choosing presidential candidates, starting in 1912, party leaders denied renomination to five incumbents: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur. All served in the 19th century, and all but Pierce had ascended to the presidency as vice presidents upon the incumbent’s death. Thus, they weren’t intended to be presidents when chosen for the second spot on a party’s ticket. They were expendable, especially those who served in the fraught politics before and after the Civil War. 

In contrast, no president in the 20th or 21st centuries has been denied nomination by his party. Two, however, faced primary challenges that resulted in their departure from the race, both after the traditionally first primary in New Hampshire:


Harry Truman, whose approval rating had fallen to 22 percent, exited when Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) defeated him in the Granite State. Lyndon Johnson bested Sen. Gene McCarthy (D-Minn.) by 7 percentage points in New Hampshire, but the margin seemed so thin that it prompted Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) to enter the race. Two weeks later, LBJ made a stunning speech from the Oval Office, declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The peace candidacies of McCarthy and Kennedy had pushed the president — mired in Vietnam War controversy and running at a 36 percent approval rate — out of the race.

Four presidents faced stiff opposition in the primaries but hung on to achieve renomination — only to lose reelection. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, unhappy over his protégé, President William Howard Taft’s, more conservative policy agenda, whipped him in the first-ever primary contests, 9-2, with another progressive, Sen. Robert La Follette, taking another two primaries. When Republican leaders, who still maintained most of the power to nominate, chose Taft again, Teddy Roosevelt bolted from the party, running as a third-party candidate and splitting the GOP vote. That handed the victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  

Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign was not a reelection bid because he had never faced the voters on a presidential ticket. Selected by the Congress to succeed corrupt vice president Spiro Agnew, Ford then landed in the Oval Office when Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate scandal. Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon, and a stalled economy, enfeebled him and prompted California Gov. Ronald Reagan to launch a conservative insurgency. 

Although Ford won 17 primaries to Reagan’s 11, the incumbent barely survived at the Republican National Convention to win on the first ballot. Georgia’s Democratic Gov. Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020 Have the courage to recognize Taiwan Respect your Elders — a call to action MORE, running as an anti-Washington populist and a moral evangelical Christian in the wake of Watergate, narrowly defeated a battered Ford.

Overtaken by a tanking economy and the Iranian hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter was further weakened by a challenge from his more liberal rival, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), in his reelection bid. Carter won two-thirds of the delegate votes, but Kennedy refused to drop out of the primary race, upstaging the incumbent with a spellbinding concession speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention and refusing to raise Carter’s hand in a victory symbol on the platform. Bruised by Kennedy’s primary attacks, soaring interest rates and a failed attempt to free the American hostages in Tehran, Carter went down to a landslide defeat by the man who had won the GOP nomination on his second attempt — Ronald Reagan.


President George H.W. Bush, in the midst of a recession and disappointing the Reagan wing of the Republican Party by agreeing to raise taxes, found himself targeted by conservative pundit Pat Buchanan in the 1992 primaries. Although Buchanan won no contests, he so damaged the president’s reelection bid, as did third-party candidate Ross Perot, that Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be No 'dole' for America: How to recover from COVID-19 Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump MORE claimed the White House for the Democrats.

With few credible challengers thus far for the 2020 primaries — and with Republican Party leaders loath to raise objections to the president for fear of his opposition in their own primary contests — President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE is following in the footsteps of most incumbent presidents in the modern era who trod easy roads to renomination. 

Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt (all three of his reelections), Truman (in 1948), Dwight D. Eisenhower, Johnson (in 1964), Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSpeculation swirls about next Supreme Court vacancy The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip What does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space? MORE faced little or no opposition to renomination. 

And here is where Trump should hope that he doesn’t depart from history. Hoover is the only one of the 11 easily-renominated presidents to lose reelection. That surely is one outlier status to which our 45th president does not aspire.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.