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Commentary: Is Trump vulnerable to a primary challenge?

Lyndon Johnson.

Jimmy Carter.

George H. W. Bush.

Donald Trump?

Three times in the modern political era, incumbent presidents have faced serious challenges from inside their own parties. And all three times, their parties lost the White House.  Could President Trump be the fourth?

President Trump isn't even halfway through his first term, so predictions are meaningless at this point. However, Jim Geraghty of the conservative magazine National Review says to keep your eye on the midterms. If Republicans suffer an electoral fiasco and lose both the House and the Senate, "at that point the case could be made that the GOP gave Trump a try and it just didn't work out," Geraghty says. "Republicans could say that he's so divisive and stirs up so much of the opposition that their only hope in 2020 is to make a change."

And last week, a poll from the New Hampshire-based American Research Group showed President Trump with a narrow 48-42 percent lead in the Granite State over Ohio Gov. John Kasich among GOP primary voters. Trump led outgoing Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake by a healthier margin, 49-33 percent, but still couldn't break the 50 percent barrier.

Then on Thursday, Morning Consult released their state-by-state numbers on the president. In Iowa—where the 2020 POTUS race will begin--Trump has gone from a 49 percent approval rating when he took office to a 43 percent rating today. In New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary and the state that launched Trump's stunning GOP victory, Trump is underwater, with 43 percent approving of him while 54 percent disapprove.

No wonder Sen. Flake and Gov. Kasich have been travelling to New Hampshire recently. Even political pundit Bill Kristol, putative head of the #NeverTrump movement, was just in Iowa and is scheduled to speak in New Hampshire next month.

Can any of these potential challengers possibly win? While it's true that Trump's numbers aren't great, in poll after poll the president still has the support of about 90 percent of Republicans. But that's not the end of the story.

Remember: None of the previous incumbent presidents who faced primary challenged lost races, either. LBJ beat anti-war insurgent candidate Eugene McCarthy 50-42 percent in New Hampshire's primary 50 years ago (despite McCarthy's support from a young Wellesley student and former Goldwater Girl who came up from Massachusetts to campaign for him – her name was Hillary Clinton). Still, the narrow victory was enough to convince Sen. Robert Kennedy to enter the race and convince LBJ he had lost his party.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter defeated Sen. Ted Kennedy by 10 points in New Hampshire and went on to win a protracted battle for the Democratic nomination. And George H. W. Bush held political pundit Pat Buchanan to just under 40 percent of the vote in 1992's New Hampshire GOP primary.

But as Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton can tell attest—the damage was already done. LBJ dropped out of his race, Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide, and Bill Clinton was able to win with just 43 percent of the vote thanks to a feisty, well-funded third-party candidate, Ross Perot, who ran on Buchanan's anti-trade message and divided the Right.

Let's see if the midterms give us any indication of Trump's strength. Democrats in 2010 got what President Obama famously called a "shellacking," but his party stayed loyal and in line.  Some Republicans fear that Trump could turn out to be the Obama of the GOP in the sense that he wins his elections, but almost everyone else in the party loses theirs.

This Obama/Trump commonality is based on the notion that their voters are loyal to them, not to the party. Both of their coalitions contained what political pros call "non-traditional voters"—people who occasionally turn out to vote for their party but always turn out for their candidate.

As long as Donald Trump can hold onto those voters, it's nearly impossible for him to lose the GOP nomination. But if he's forced to fight for those votes in New Hampshire's primary, he could find himself on the list of unlucky ex-presidents.

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