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Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley shouts to supporters as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, wave to supporters on Nov. 6, 2015. (AP Photo) Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley shouts to supporters as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, wave to supporters on Nov. 6, 2015. (AP Photo)

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley shouts to supporters as Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, wave to supporters on Nov. 6, 2015. (AP Photo)

Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu November 10, 2015

Fact-checking Martin O'Malley's claim that Bernie Sanders sought primary challenger to Obama

Bernie Sanders didn’t have Barack Obama’s back in 2012, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley suggested at the First in the South Democratic Presidential forum.

"When President Obama was running for re-election, I was glad to step up and work very hard for him, while Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him," O’Malley said on Nov. 6, adding that he’s "a lifelong Democrat" unlike Sanders, a former independent, and Hillary Clinton, a former Republican.

That’s "categorically false," Sanders said on ABC’s This Week two days later: "Somebody asked me years ago, do you think there should be a primary opponent to Barack Obama? And I don't know exactly the words that I -- I'm not sure -- what's wrong with a primary situation?"

So who’s right?

The Sanders campaign didn’t get back to us, but O’Malley’s spokesperson sent us several examples of Sanders saying a primary challenge wouldn’t be a bad idea.

We also searched Google, Nexis and CQ for comments Sanders made on the topic of a primary challenge. Here’s what he said:

• March 16, 2011 WNYC: "If a progressive Democrat wants to run, I think it would enliven the debate, raise some issues, and people have a right to do that. I've been asked whether I am going to do that. I'm not. I don't know who is, but in a democracy, it's not a bad idea to have different voices out there."

• July 22, 2011 Thom Hartmann Radio Program: "I think one of the reasons that the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him, and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing. … At this point, I have not (encouraged anyone), but I am now giving thought to it. There are a lot of smart, honest, progressive people who I think can be good presidents."

• Aug. 12, 2011 C-SPAN: "If you’re asking me, do I think at the end of the day that Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2012? I do. But do I believe that it is a good idea for our democracy, and for the Democratic Party — and I speak, by the way, as an independent — that people start asking the president some hard questions about why he said one thing during his previous campaign and then is doing another thing today on Social Security, on Medicare? I think it is important that that discussion take place."

• Nov. 13, 2011 Politico: Sanders refused to say whether he would back the president in 2012, but said he hopes "the president never forgets who elected him to the White House. It was not Wall Street, although they contributed. It was not the big money interests. It was working families, lower-income people and the middle class." He also urged Obama to "stop reaching negotiated agreements with Republicans that are extremely weak and disadvantageous to ordinary people. ... I certainly hope and expect to be supporting the president, but it’s a little bit early in the process."

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So it’s clear that Sanders was suggesting a primary challenge to move Obama to the left, experts said, but not exactly the way O’Malley phrased it.

"I'm not sure if he was actually actively ‘trying to find someone,’ but it is clear that he thought it would be a good idea if someone did decide to challenge him," said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University. (Sanders’ comments sparked a rumbling in the media as well as the question of whether that someone would be Hillary Clinton.)

Kathleen Kendall, a communications professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in presidential campaign rhetoric, noted that Sanders was expressing strong dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies -- a point that didn’t go unnoticed by the White House.

Four anonymous senior officials for Obama’s 2012 campaign told BuzzFeed that Sanders was "either attacking the president from the left or doing little to get him elected."

"Every indication we had was that he was considering a primary challenge," one unnamed official said in the BuzzFeed story.

Sanders eventually endorsed Obama over Mitt Romney, telling CNN in May 2012, "I think Obama is by far the preferable candidate. Is Obama doing everything I want? Absolutely not, and among other things, he has not been as strong as he should standing up to Wall Street."

Our ruling

O’Malley said, "When President Obama was running for re-election … Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him."

As a sitting senator, Sanders' comments at a minimum were provocative: He didn't think it was a bad idea for a candidate to run against Obama in the primary. He spoke positively of such a scenario several times. When Sanders endorsed Obama, Sanders said it was because Obama was preferable to Romney. That doesn’t mean Sanders was actively searching for a candidate to actually run against Obama.

We rate O’Malley’s claim Half True.

Our Sources

Email interviews with Haley Morris, spokesperson for Martin O’Malley

MSNBC, "Martin O'Malley Finds His Stride in South Carolina," Nov. 7, 2015

Buzzfeed, "The Obama Campaign Remembers 2012 Very Differently Than Bernie Sanders," Nov. 8, 2015

ABC, "Bernie Sanders Rejects Martin O’Malley's Attacks as 'Categorically False'," Nov. 8, 2015

Google search

Nexis search

CQ search

WNYC, "Bernie Sanders: Speaking Independently," March 16, 2011

Youtube, "A Primary Challenger For Obama?" July 22, 2011

C-SPAN, "Newsmakers with Senator Bernie Sanders," Aug. 12, 2011

Politico, "Some Dems refuse to back Obama," Nov. 13, 2011

Real Clear Politics, "Carney Grilled Over Potential Hillary Primary Challenge: ‘You'll Have To Ask Her’," Aug. 29, 2011

CNN, "Transcript: The Situation Room," May 16, 2012

The Hill, "Dem thorns remain in Obama’s side," May 2, 2012

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Fact-checking Martin O'Malley's claim that Bernie Sanders sought primary challenger to Obama

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