Published October 25, 2023
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who is expected to announce a quixotic primary challenge to President Biden on Friday, has no chance of winning his party’s nomination. But Biden should not rest easy; Phillips might not be a serious candidate, but he is a serious threat.
If that sounds preposterous, it’s likely because primary challengers have a poor track record against incumbent presidents. Even strong ideological challenges have failed against weak incumbents, including Ronald Reagan’s bid against Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy’s against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Those who exceeded expectations, such as Pat Buchanan in 1992 against George H.W. Bush, did so because of ideological discontent among the party’s base, which is not as evident among Democrats today.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.