In 1980 Jimmy Carter defeated Ted Kennedy in a Primary contest for the Nomination of the Democratic Party for President. Walter Mondale was also renominated. According to Beltway-think, this Primary challenge was responsible for Carter losing the General Election to Ronald Reagan.
I think the cause and effect is a little messed up. I believe that Kennedy challenged Carter BECAUSE he was weak, both as President, from the oil crisis, from the bad stagnant economy, but also from the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Follow me below for lead up to the 1980 Primary:
A midsummer 1978 poll had shown Democrats preferring Kennedy over Carter by a 5-to-3 margin.
At the same time, Carter had an approval rating of 28%. By August of 1979, Carter's approval rating had dropped to Dick Cheney country: 19%. Kennedy was preferred 2:1 over Carter.
Then, on November 4th, 1979, Iranian students stormed the American Embassy and took hostages.
Three days later, Kennedy declared his candidacy for President.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (where empires go to die) began on December 27th.
I personally remember the "Rose Garden Strategy" that Carter campaigned with (or rather, DIDN'T campaign). But Kennedy lost ground and headlines because of the Soviet Invasion and a poorly run campaign. The Chappaquiddick incident didn't help him, either.
Kennedy lost badly in Iowa and other primaries and nearly pulled out of the contest when he had an upset in the New York primary with 59-41% of the vote. While not winning enough delegates to directly win the Nomination, Kennedy had won 10 primaries to Carter's 24.
Instead of giving up, Kennedy went to the Convention and tried to free candidates from their pledges so that they could vote for him as he was considerably more popular among the delegates than his delegate count would suggest. When his proposed rule change failed, Kennedy withdrew. This was August 12, 1980.
The Election wasn't until November, of course. Kennedy clearly lost the Nomination because of the Chappaquiddick baggage and the Soviet Invasion.
a) Was the damage inflicted upon Carter caused by Kennedy, or b) was Kennedy a symptom of Carter's already significant weakness?
I believe the answer is B, not A. Carter wouldn't have received a challenge if he'd been a strong candidate. Whether Kennedy ran against him or not, CARTER. WOULD. HAVE. LOST.
While some disaffected Moderates voted for John Anderson (I remember Grandpa Polecat voting for Anderson -- wasted vote), Ronald Reagan engineered a significant victory and was elected.
We don't need to get into the secret negotiations between Reagan's people and the Iranians to not release the hostages until after the election, nor the illegal offers of parts and other military materials.
• Had Kennedy not carried the baggage he did, he would have been President in 1980.
• Had Carter not been as unpopular as he was, Kennedy would not have run against him.
• Had Kennedy not challenged Carter, Carter would still have lost the Presidency.
• It was not the Primary Challenge that caused Carter to lose.
OBSERVATIONS FOR 2012
• A primary challenge to Obama does not mean that the Democrats will lose the Presidency in 2012. Especially with the current cast of T-Republicans running.
• Whomever would challenge Obama from the Left (and it would HAVE to be from the Left), that person must have little or no baggage and must run on a campaign of JOBS, JOBS, and more JOBS.
• The mere presence of a viable Democratic Challenger to Obama would force him to the Left. Here I must reference the Nixon strategy of running toward the base during the Primary and back to the Center for the General Election. For the duration of the Primary, at least, Obama would be forced back toward the Democratic Party.
• Clinton v. Obama taught us something else: A primary challenge can be a good thing; you rob the other party of oxygen and you much more strongly introduce your candidate to the electorate. Clinton v. Obama didn't hurt Obama in the General Election. The PUMA effect was only present in a few blogs by a few strident individuals.
We, on the Left have very little to lose by mounting a viable challenge to Obama. Obama could very well lose this messaging contest without a challenger, especially to the point of hurting us even farther downticket. 2010 was devastating. We cannot allow that to happen AGAIN.
This then begs the next question of whom to recruit and how the Democratic Party would take it. I'd recommend Boxer, Feingold, Spitzer (under the theory that a dalliance is less damaging than Chappaquidick), Gore (although he's a but more DLC than I would like), and I'd have to look around at some former Governors.
But we need to seriously think about this and not conclude that the existence of a Primary Challenger is a bad thing. A 28% approval rating is a bad thing. A challenger, not so much.