Primary history is on Trump's side

Primary history is on Trump's side

No modern president has been denied nomination by his party

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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. 

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