Why Weld Matters

Who is Bill Weld? If you aren’t a Libertarian or from Massachusetts, you may not know the former two-term Republican governor and 2016 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee. Yesterday he announced his intention to oppose Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination, a move easily dismissed as quixotic given the overwhelming support Trump enjoys in his party. And it probably is. The significance of Weld’s candidacy may rest more with the fact that he is running at all, and what that could portend for Trump’s re-election prospects.

Weld may not be a serious contender for the Republican nomination, but he is a serious person, having served as a US Attorney and Assistant Attorney General along with his eight-year stint in Boston. Weld is an anomaly in today’s politics. A patrician New England Republican with moderate social views, Weld represents a wing of the Republican Party that long ago flew away. He will make his pitch to that group of disaffected Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who recoil at the Trump presidency and are most responsible for erosion in the Republican base since 2016.

These voters may be an endangered species, but if you were to go looking for their habitat the first place you would turn is southern New Hampshire, where Weld is well-known and where the rules permit independents to register with a party to vote in the primary. Weld has almost a year to convince a critical mass of these voters to do just that. He won’t win in New Hampshire but he doesn’t have to if he wants to establish a place for himself in the 2020 campaign. And then what?

Polling suggests it will be nearly impossible for Weld to use New Hampshire to catapult to national viability. But history suggests that unless he fades away, his presence in New Hampshire is an ominous sign for Trump’s re-election prospects. Let’s take a look at what happened when other long shot candidates challenged incumbents of their own party:

Primary Challenges to Incumbent Presidents

YEARINCUMBENTNEW HAMPSHIRE PCTCHALLENGERINCUMBENT RE-ELECTED?
1952Truman44%Estes Kefauver (55%)NO
1968Johnson50%Eugene McCarthy (42%)NO
1972Nixon68%Pete McClosky (20%)YES
1976Ford50%Ronald Reagan (49%)NO
1980Carter48%Edward Kennedy (38%)NO
1992Bush53%Pat Buchanan (38%)NO

Since 1952, six incumbent presidents who sought or considered seeking re-election faced a primary challenge. All of the challengers lost, but in five cases the incumbent and his party were turned out of office the following November. Harry Truman entertained thoughts of running for a second full term in 1952, only to pull the plug on the idea after losing to Sen. Estes Kefauver in the New Hampshire primary (Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Republican Dwight Eisenhower). All but one of the other challengers held the incumbent to roughly 50% of the vote in the nation’s first primary and exposed their political weaknesses. Anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy barely received more than four of ten votes cast in New Hampshire in 1968, but it was enough to prevent Lyndon Johnson from seeking another term. Ronald Reagan, at the time a movement conservative rebel, played incumbent Gerald Ford to a draw in New Hampshire and waged a spirited campaign that almost cost Ford the 1976 Republican nomination. Ted Kennedy’s effort four years later, though less spirited than Reagan’s, set the stage for Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election bid. In 1992, commentator Pat Buchanan walked off the set of CNN’s Crossfire, set up a campaign operation in Manchester, and startled the political world by claiming 38% of the New Hampshire vote against George H.W. Bush. Only Richard Nixon, who faced a weak challenge from his left by Rep. Pete McClosky and an even weaker challenge from his right by Rep. John Ashbrook, escaped a primary challenge unscathed.

As for the other incumbents of this period who sought re-election without primary opposition? Take a look:

Incumbent Presidents Without Primary Challengers

YEARINCUMBENTNEW HAMPSHIRE PCTCHALLENGERINCUMBENT RE-ELECTED?
1956Eisenhower94%NoneYES
1964Johnson95%NoneYES
1984Reagan86%NoneYES
1996Clinton84%NoneYES
2004Bush81%NoneYES
2012Obama81%NoneYES

While the number of cases is small, it is more than coincidental that vulnerable incumbents draw primary opponents while strong incumbents do not. Challengers sense weakness, and vulnerabilities exposed in the primaries can be exploited in the general election. Primary challenges do not predetermine defeat but they are a reliable indicator of trouble ahead. Keep an eye on Bill Weld.