I was reading a short piece in the Washington Post today about Third Party presidential candidates in the US. It made me think about how everyone claims to want a Third Party but it never really takes off. Bernstein says a “successful” Third Party run (not sure how he views successful but since he talks about Ross Perot and George Wallace I’ll conjecture he means around 10% of the vote or more): “one or more of the following: fame, money, political qualifications and a built-in constituency“.
Think about Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debbs getting nearly 7% of the vote. At first that doesn’t seem like much, but look at all the hand-wringing and free media exposure Ralph Nader got as a “third party spoiler” (even before Florida) in 2000 and he didn’t even hit 3%! With our infuriating Electoral College a 7% siphoning off of votes from either of the two major parties is more than enough to tilt the balance in many states. I haven’t done a close enough state-by-state analysis of where Eugene Debbs did the best, but because there were THREE other candidates I think the tipping power was not as strong in 1912 as it would have been any other election year including this one. Incidentally this is the best results the Socialist Party has ever enjoyed in the US at the national level. Post-Cold War it’s hard for us to imagine that the Socialist Party was once a viable option in the US heartland.
But the true Third Party challenger here was good ole’ Teddy Roosevelt. The former president attempting the ultimate comeback still holds the all-time record for best showing of a Third Party (popular vote @ 28%). He definitely had the “fame, money, political qualifications and a built-in constituency” and international rock star status to boot. It’s a given, really, that had the GOP convention rules been different Teddy would have been the nominee and (I believe) won the presidency handily. Not to use this as a rant against the 22nd Amendment (which codified a two-term limit) but I think an unfortunate side-effect of that amendment is that it’s killed the chances of a former president, however beloved, throwing his hat in the ring. Popular two-termers are out of the running entirely, and I feel we’ve (unfortunately) developed the mindset as American voters that one-term = failure. I’d argue on foreign policy George H.W. Bush was a far superior president to Bill Clinton, but I’ll save that one for another day.
So who does that leave for us in 2012? Donald Trump was pretty hilarious when he toyed with it but all he had was the “fame and money” part of the equation, there really is no built-in constituency. Ross Perot had three out of four, it was only the political qualifications part he lacked in 1992. There is a case for Mayor Bloomberg, but don’t we already have a moderate candidate with Barack Obama? I can’t see very many Democrats going over to the Bloomberg camp outside of NYC, and there is that dual Evangelical and Tea Party base that would never vote for Bloomberg so whatever Independents and moderate Republicans he could capture in the swing states would probably just result in throwing the state over to Obama.
Traditionally there have always been mini-parties within the parties: liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and conservative ones. Yet, that has pretty much faded away now: you’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican who also calls themselves a Liberal since Betty Ford passed away. For all the excitement and drama of the 2008 Democratic Primary, there was actually very little space between Hillary and Barack. The main difference was their style and approach despite attempts to paint contrasts as the race drew on. I supported Obama from late 2006 onward when he was the odd long shot not because he was to the left of Hillary, but because I believed his (non-Baby Boomer) approach and worldview would be superior with the Party’s new demographics and appeal to a certain type of independent who had voted against Bill Clinton in the past. If there was a Third Party challenge from the Left–and I feel that is where there is the gaping hole currently–I don’t see a current person with the fame, money OR built-in contingency to pull it off.
Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his most successful Third Party run ever. Although the common wisdom is that the Taft/Teddy splitting of the vote = a Wilson win I think that the short-lived Progressive (Republican) Party of Teddy helped create the modern Democratic Party. Counter-intuitively, the “old Republicans” (Taft) who were humiliated (think about it, a sitting president only getting 23% of the re-election vote?!) by Teddy’s new progressive Republican spin-off party didn’t adapt or update their party platform much. Yet, during Wilson’s presidency the Democratic Party really transformed itself into a party of social reform and international involvement, much of this inspired by TR’s hugely successful run.