Which Political Party is More Competitive Against Itself?

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By Quentin Choy

May 10, 2021

Yesterday, my girlfriend asked me which political party is more competitive among itself and more willing to pose challengers to people within its party. Thinking of the wrench in the system that Donald Trump has been for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, I asked “do you mean right now or over time?” to which she responded “over time.”

It was an interesting question, and I had a gut reaction of an answer. After doing some research and thinking about different interparty competition throughout the years, I decided to work through it all in this blog post.

Before discussing some examples of interparty competition, there is a distinction in each election that needs to be drawn first. Some elections are open elections, meaning they have no incumbent, and both parties are poised to take the presidency. In reelection campaigns, or elections with an incumbent president, that president’s party is less likely to challenge him. Both parties are relatively respectful toward incumbent presidents and don’t put up high-profile challengers from within their own party until that president completes their second term.

Neither party is likely to challenge an incumbent president, especially one popular among voters. Courtesy of The Concord Monitor.

Overall, Democrats are more hierarchical in terms of inter-party competition and are more wary of putting up outsider, maverick candidates. The Democratic Party follows the system of hierarchy in believing that the party ought to always unify around the experienced candidate who is “next is line” and is highly-qualified.

The Republicans are more unified in terms of ideology (for the most part) and are able to compete more on a horizontal scale with many people pushing similar agendas. Republicans are also less afraid of interparty competition and challenging and primarying one another over ideological differences.

I’ll use a few examples from different presidential primary elections which had certain levels of interparty competition starting with the 1968 Democratic Primary to field a candidate against Richard Nixon.


The 1968 Democratic Primary was a messy election, and it took place during a tumultuous time. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, and the Vietnam War had escalated due to the decisions of Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s popularity had decreased so much that he declined to run for the presidency in 1964 despite being an incumbent president who was fairly popular on domestic issues such as the War on Poverty.

While some notable candidates such as George McGovern and Robert Kennedy ran in the primaries, the party and its voters ultimately decided on selecting Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s VP to be the party nominee to challenge Nixon in 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June adding to the tumultuous state of the nation.

Robert Kennedy in California, minutes before he would be assassinated. Courtesy of JFK Library.

Although some in the party vied for the vacancy left behind by Johnson’s withdrawal, at all eventually led to the Vice President being the “next in line” for the nomination. While the trend continued from this forward with the Democrats having the Vice President be next in line as the party’s nominee (Mondale 1984, Gore 2000) the Republicans have followed this idea as well (Nixon 1960, Bush 1988).


The 1972 Democratic primary sought to remove an incumbent Richard Nixon through the power of the ballot box, and many Democrats wanted to be the one to “slay the beast.” Hubert Humphrey ran again, but this time, he was not picked as the nominee by voters. Instead, voters chose George McGovern, a Senator from South Dakota as the party’s nominee.

Other candidates put up challenges to Nixon in the primary, as there was no incumbent Democratic president, leaving the spot open. These primary challengers included George Wallace who ran with the American Independent Party in 1968, Edmund Muskie who ran with Humphrey in 1968, and Shirley Chisholm, a U.S. representative from New York who was the first African-American to run for a major party ticket and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party ticket.

Shirley Chisholm. Courtesy of N.G. Slater Corporation.

By choosing McGovern over Humphrey, the party had done a rare thing by picking a candidate outside of the establishment and who was more popular among the grassroots base. Many in the party opposed McGovern for being too liberal and for having policies. This primary was an example of the Democratic Party’s discomfort in putting forth candidates who are not supported by the party establishment. McGovern’s loss to Nixon in 1972 further solidified this opinion of preferring establishment candidates in the future.


The 1976 Republican primary election was one of the most contentious primaries for the Republicans with Gerald Ford being the incumbent president following Nixon’s resignation and with Ronald Reagan, actor and Governor of California being an ascendant force among the Republican base. With Gerald Ford being popular among conservatives for his incumbency as president, and with Ronald Reagan being popular for his name recognition as an actor and for his governorship in California.

Ford and Reagan at the 1976 Republican Convention. Courtesy of William Fitz-Patrick.

Reagan was popular among the conservative base and introduced ideas of small government and more libertarian economic ideas to the mainstream Republican base. The 1976 Republican convention was contested in that neither Ford no Reagan had secured enough delegates in a majority to win the nomination outright. Delegates at the convention who were undecided ultimately ended up siding with Ford, winning him the nomination. Ford would later lose to Carter-Mondale in the 1976 general election, and despite losing the Republican primary in 1976, Ford’s loss to Carter paved the way for Reagan to win the primary in 1980.


Following Walter Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984, the Democrats were determined to find a candidate to win in 1988, with no incumbent president holding the White House. The Republicans put forth George Bush, Reagan’s VP as their nominee, and the Democrats still had to search for a proper challenger.

Some challengers included Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Colorado Senator Gary Hart who withdrew due to an extramarital affair scandal, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

A plagiarism scandal ended Biden’s campaign, and a photo of Gary Hart with Donna Hart, a woman with which he was accused of having an affair with. Despite being the frontrunner at one point, Hart’s withdrawal paved the way for Dukakis to become the nominee.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.

This primary showed that both parties were willing to put forth a vice president as a nominee as well as jockeying by many candidates for the nomination in which there is no incumbent president.


The 2000 Republican primary was mostly a battle between George W. Bush and John McCain following the final year of Bill Clinton’s two terms as president, leaving no incumbent in the White House. The Democrats put up Clinton’s VP Al Gore as their nominee, and the Republicans were still searching for someone who could challenge the VP of one of the most popular Democratic presidents in modern history.

George W. Bush, son of former President George H.W. Bush was the party’s favorite to win, but Arizona Senator John McCain ended up beating Bush in the New Hampshire primary. McCain was well-respected in Arizona for his service in the Vietnam War, and one of his most notable campaign errors was his position on the Confederate flag in South Carolina during the South Carolina primary. McCain stated that his belief was that the flag represented heritage despite his true belief that it was a hurtful symbol. He later told the truth on his real position, saying that he compromised his beliefs for political gain.

The campaign was devastatingly brutal with accusations being thrown from both sides against the candidates. John McCain was accused of fathering a black child out of wedlock, when in reality, he and his wife Cindy had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh. In Virginia, McCain made a speech which blasted the Religious Right and its leaders, ultimately costing him that primary.

John and Cindy McCain. Courtesy of The Boston Globe.

George W. Bush later went on to win victories on Super Tuesday and defeated McCain in the primaries and Gore in the general election following the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore (2000).


The 2008 Democratic Primary was about as contentious as for the Democrats as 2000 was for the Republicans. Following two terms of the Bush presidency, and with Dick Cheney not running for the presidency, the field was wide open for both Democrats and Republicans.

The Republicans did not put VP Dick Cheney up to run, and a quick primary between Mitt Romney and John McCain selected McCain as the nominee, since he was the most recent Republican aside from Bush and Cheney whose aims were toward the White House.

The Democratic side however, was split. Al Gore, the nominee from 2000 and John Kerry, the nominee from 2004 declined to run, leaving the Democratic hierarchy wide open. Bill Clinton, the most popular Democrat at the time was unable to run as he had already completed two terms of president. His wife, Hillary was a Senator from New York, and with the hierarchy thrown off by high-profile rejections to run for the presidency, she was “next in line.” Candidates included Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel.

It was difficult for the Democratic base to pick a nominee because 2008 was marked with two potential “firsts” for the presidency following the entry of Illinois Senator Barack Obama into the race. Democrats had to decide between the first woman president or the first Black president. The primary narrowed between the two most competitive forces, Clinton and Obama.

Obama won the first caucus in Iowa, bringing him to national prominence. He also won a majority of Super Tuesday contests, paving a way toward becoming the nominee. This election was also one of the first in which social media played a prominent role, which the Obama campaign adopted.

Frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Courtesy of The Nation.

A major argument from Clinton against Obama was that he had not been properly vetted and that he was untested. The argument she made was the same idea held by many in the Democratic establishment who were nervous about outsider candidates. The two candidates continued winning contests closely, but Obama ended up gaining more delegates overall, putting him over 2,117 delegates to become the Democratic nominee.

Clinton conceded to Obama and endorsed him saying:

“The changes we’re working for are changes that we can only accomplish together. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights that belong to us as individuals. But our lives, our freedom, our happiness are best enjoyed, best protected, and best advanced when we do work together. That is what we will do now, as we join forces with Senator Obama and his campaign. We will make history together, as we write the next chapter in America’s story. We will stand united for the values we hold dear, for the vision of progress we share, and for the country we love. There is nothing more American than that.”

Hillary Clinton’s concession speech to be the Democratic nominee for president, 2008.

Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden would go on to win the general election against John McCain and Sarah Palin.

The 2008 election showed an instance of the Republican establishment being uncomfortable with outsider candidates even if they were supported by the Republican base. This was seen in the discomfort from established Republicans like Dick Cheney being wary of inexperienced politicians like Sarah Palin being selected as John McCain’s running mate.

Two of the most established Republicans, Bush and Cheney didn’t run in 2008, leaving the field open for McCain-Palin. Courtesy of CNN.

2016: The 2016 election was another example of an open election in which there was no incumbent president. The Republicans lined up a large field of candidates to undo the Obama presidency. For the Democrats, they wouldn’t put up Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden as the nominee.

In 2016, Biden didn’t run because of the severity of his son Beau’s brain cancer. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Biden said “when Beau got sick, Beau was absolutely insistent that I not let anybody know. The people who had begun to organize for me, if I had told them, “Stop,” they would have known we didn’t expect Beau to live. So this developed into people thinking the reason I wasn’t running [was] because I was worried about Hillary.”

With Biden not competing for the presidency, Clinton was once again the most prominent Democrat in the hierarchy to campaign for the White House.

The primary narrowed pretty quickly with very few candidates entering the race. Jim Webb, Senator from Virginia, Lincoln Chafee, governor of Rhode Island, Martin O’Malley, governor of Virginia, and Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont all entered the race. The race quickly narrowed between Sanders and Clinton with Sanders winning 23 primary contests and with Clinton winning 34. Being an outsider, many establishment Democrats didn’t trust Sanders winning the nomination due to his liberal agenda, comparing him to McGovern in 1972.

Sanders ultimately withdrew and campaigned for Clinton. However, he had become popular among the youth and working-class who believed in his “political revolution.” His candidacy represented a resurgence of progressive values and left-wing populism.

On the Republican side, many candidates wanted to be the one to undo the eight years of the Obama presidency.

The candidates for Republican nominee in 2016. Courtesy of FOX 8.

Notable candidates included Ohio Governor John Kasich, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, CEO Carly Fiorina, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, businessman Donald Trump, and former governor of Florida Jeb Bush.

Many of these politicians were well-established, with the most notable being Jeb Bush, brother of former president George W. Bush and the son of former president George H.W. Bush. Despite his establishment within the party, Jeb Bush was out of touch and suspended his campaign. One by one, Republicans dropped out of the race, with Donald Trump ultimately winning the nomination having won 41 contests.

Trump was supported heavily by the Republican base but was distrusted by the Republican establishment in Washington. Like the Democrats, the Republican Party was becoming wary of outsider candidates. Trump defeated Clinton in the general election becoming president with Mike Pence as his running mate. The Democrats felt the election had been robbed and that Clinton, highest in the hierarchy had been denied once again.


After his first few years in office, many Democrats wanted to be the ones to defeat Trump in the 2020 election and become the party’s savior.

Many thought Clinton would try again, but she didn’t enter the race. Bernie Sanders was the most notable candidate for a while until Joe Biden entered the race. Sanders and Biden had the highest name recognition, but that didn’t stop other prominent Democrats from competing.

The field of candidates from the Democratic side was around 20 candidates, making it the largest primary in American history. Candidates included senator Kamala Harris from California, businessman Andrew Yang, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii representative and veteran Tulsi Gabbard, and billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg.

The 2020 Democratic field was the largest in American history. Courtesy of Fox News.

With so many candidates wanting to take on Trump, the debates were split into two nights. The candidates whose names weren’t widely recognized dropped out first, narrowing the field. The first big name candidate to drop out was California senator Kamala Harris whose campaign struggled in finding a core theme and stances on issues.

Following Harris’ withdrawal from the race before the primaries even began, others began to drop out. Mayors Messam and de Blasio dropped out. Governors Hickenlooper, Inslee, and Bullock later withdrew. Representatives O’Rourke, Ryan, Swalwell, Moulton, and Delaney withdrew. Senators Gillibrand, Booker, and Bennet would follow.

As the debates went on, many Democrats refused to criticize Biden too harshly, fearing attacking a generally liked, high-profile Democrat would come off as desperate. The debates split between the progressives and the moderates with Sanders and Warren fighting off moderate attacks as a team.

The race narrowed up to just Biden, Buttigieg, Gabbard, Klobuchar, Warren, Steyer, and Sanders. Believing Sanders was ascendant to the nomination, billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg entered the race before being driven out by Sanders and Warren who criticized his billionaire status and tenure as NYC mayor.

Michael Bloomberg attacked progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Courtesy of ABC News.

A rift formed between Sanders and Warren as Warren accused Sanders and his supporters of sexism, which he denied. Warren lost her home state of Massachusetts in the primary, and she dropped out. Tulsi Gabbard stuck around until the end of the debate despite polling under 2 percent in most polls.

Suddenly, both Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race, seemingly out of nowhere. Later that night, they were in Texas with Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke at a Biden campaign event in which Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke endorsed Biden.

Biden lost the Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada primaries, but he won the South Carolina caucus with around 49 percent of the vote. Many believe that prominent representative Jim Clyburn played a key role in mobilizing African-Americans for Biden. Biden’s momentum continued forth into Super Tuesday where he won the majority of states. From Super Tuesday forth, his momentum was unstoppable, and as he gained the endorsements of Gabbard and Yang, he was seen as the “electable candidate” for the general election.

Prominent South Carolina U.S. representative Jim Clyburn endorses Biden, breathing life back into his campaign. Courtesy of The State.

Sanders dropped out of the race, endorsed Biden, and Joe went on to defeat Donald Trump in the primary with Kamala Harris as his running mate. The election showed that the party competing among itself reveals different factions among the party and the role that name recognition plays. This primary also showed the moderates versus the progressives in taking on Trump who in the Republican primary won all 56 contests against Bill Weld, showing that Republicans are very unlikely to challenge a popular incumbent president. The consolidation of moderates against Sanders showed that the Democrats still feared outsider, non-establishment candidates and preferred following their system of hierarchy.

Overall, I think Republicans are more competitive within their party but have less factional differences than Democrats. Despite brutal primary campaigns, Republicans are quick to unify and defend whoever their party puts forth and are more willing to put up outsider, non-establishment candidates.

The Democrats still hold on to the idea of hierarchy and having someone “next in line” for the presidency. They still fear outside candidates even if they are supported by the Democratic base. In terms of the House and Senate however, Democrats are less likely to challenge each other despite factional differences with an example being the Justice Democrats and the Squad being afraid to challenge Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Despite being active on social media, the Squad and progressive representatives in the House usually fall in line to Speaker Pelosi. Courtesy of Politico.

The Republicans however, are more likely to throw people out of their party with the rise of the Tea Party and the replacement of moderate John Boehner for Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House. Currently, Republicans are holding on to hierarchy and their most successful candidate, Donald Trump. Outsiders or those accused of crimes like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado are easily thrown out by the party for those who are more establishment which could signal that the GOP has a certain limit on how “outsider” a member of the party can be.

The issue with Liz Cheney going on in the House over her continued denouncement of Donald Trump reveals that the Republicans hold their leaders to a certain regard in terms of a hierarchy within the GOP. Being the third-highest ranking Republican in the House, many Republican voters as well as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy believe that she should be replaced. With denouncements by Trump against moderate Republicans like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, it shows that when the Republicans have a successful leader, the party will do its best to keep that leader in power.

Kevin McCarthy condemning Liz Cheney for insufficient loyalty to Trump. Courtesy of Blog for Arizona.

For Republicans, the legitimacy of its leaders comes from the voters, and they hardly ever reject that source of legitimacy. Trump currently holds that legitimacy. For Democrats, the legitimacy of their leaders comes from the party with some examples of outsiders making it into positions of power such as George McGovern and Barack Obama.

While both parties are quite competitive with each other, the Republicans are likelier to go for blood while the Democrats usually go softer against one another arguing that the party needs to be unified. In the end, both parties support whoever makes it to the highest posts of power whether through the ballot or through hierarchy and name recognition.

Image Courtesy of NPR.

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