Referendum on the Challenger?

Chris Suellentrop makes a novel argument in his piece “Running Scared.” The subtitle, “Guess what? Republicans fear the other guy more than they like their own,” is the thesis. It’s rather amusing since, for months, we’ve all noted that the Democrats seem to be motivated primarily by their hatred of George W. Bush than any love for John Kerry.

In violation of the normal rules of politics, this year’s election is a referendum on the challenger rather than a referendum on the incumbent. There’s a general sense that a change in presidents would be a good thing, but the country is taking that decision more seriously than it would in peacetime, and voters aren’t certain, despite their disapproval of President Bush, that a President Kerry would be an improvement.

His argument, though, is based on his anecdotal observations on the Convention floor that people seem to get more excited by attacks on Kerry than recitation of Bush’s achievements. This doesn’t surprise me. So-called “red meat” always fires up convention goers.

Indeed, with the possible exception of the 1984 Republican Convention, I can’t think of a single instance where an incumbent running for re-election truly fired up the base. Even Bill Clinton, the most beloved figure in the Democratic party since John Kennedy, elicited grumbles from the faithful in 1996. Not only did he have a passel of minor scandals but he proved not to be a hard core lefty. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone–he ran as a New Democrat in 1992 and had been governor of Arkansas, for goodness sakes–but a fresh candidate is someone whom the hard core can secretly hope will become an ideologue once elected. The downside of incumbency is having four years of tough choices and compromises on one’s resume.

George W. Bush is no different. All the polls I’ve seen still show him with incredibly high support among Republicans–much higher than Kerry’s support among Democrats. But the hard core Republicans who make up the bulk of the convention delegates are almost certainly disappointed in him for one reason or another.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. An alternative thesis to Suellentrop (and a restatement to some degree of your last paragraph) is that the Bushies may think they have already “made the sale” on Bush and are moving on to the next logical step: damaging the challenger.