A Third-Party Candidate in 2012?
posted at 8:10 am on August 27, 2011 by Karl
Pollsters Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen are exactly the sort to claim to “see evidence on the ground that from the discontent coursing through the electorate there may emerge a third or even fourth political party that would be competitive in next year’s presidential election.” Their WSJ op-ed raises a number of questions, not the least of which is who might be paying them to poll and focus group the issue.
For those nascent third and fourth parties, Caddell and Schoen point to the ostensibly “centrist, bipartisan, Americans Elect” and the Tea Party movement. Aside from the fact that Americans Elect currently has ballot access in only four states, the group so far appears to becoming a haven for the left. On one hand, I find myself agreeing with lefty David Sirota that “centrist” third-party groups fizzle because the center-left already has a grip on the establishment. On the other hand, Sirota offers up the Working Families Party as an alternative; I tend to doubt the unholy trinity of Big Labor, ACORN remnants and Naderites can build much of a power base outside the deepest Blue states.
The Tea Party would be a more viable foundation for a third party in the rest of the country. However, the movement took as large a beating as anyone in the wake of the recent debt ceiling deal. Schoen’s own polling showed a tea party presidential candidate could get 15%-25% of the vote, “depending on the precise alignment of the candidates.” Presumably, the maximal alignment would be if Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination and Sarah Palin ran independently. However, as Palin recently stated she could support someone like Romney and “anyone but Obama,” this scenario seems unlikely.
Caddell and Schoen note “rumblings” about a Donald Trump candidacy. However, while third-party candidates tend to arise in times of greater tumult, such candidates tend to represent either an issue going unaddressed by the two established parties or a schism within one of the established parties. Trump’s own toe-dipping in GOP waters helped make him a bad fit for either category. Rather than emulate the H. Ross Perot example of can-do business tycoon crusading against the debt bomb, he chose to be a one-month wonder on the fringe issue of Birtherism. Thus, he is damaged goods on the right and unsuitable to the center or left.
Caddell and Schoen further note the historical examples of Perot and John Anderson. Their claim that both garnered high levels of support is dubious. Anderson topped out at 25% and ended with 7% (the sixth-best showing for a third-party candidate in the 20th century). Perot briefly led the 1992 campaign, but withdrew in a fit of paranoia, only to re-enter and finish with 19%. However, Perot ascended in 1992 by addressing an issue (the deficit/debt) a large segment of the public felt was not being addressed adequately by the establishment parties; it became symbolic of a general failure of government (Carter-era malaise played a similar role in 1980, along with the intra-GOP struggle Reagan won). However, the Perot-esque voter in 2012 will likely have a GOP nominee with plenty to say about the debt bomb. Most of the field would at least seem outsider-ish; even Romney can try to use his private-sector background to his advantage.
Moreover, as someone on the right, the prospect of a third-party candidacy does not particularly bother me. The recent history of such candidacies — e.g., Wallace, Anderson, Perot ’92, Nader — were all indicators of a loss for the party holding the White House. The chief counter-example would be Perot ’96, where Bill Clinton rode an improving economy to a less-than-50% victory. As of yet, there is little sign of an improving economy or a person with the media savvy and money of a Perot with an unaddressed issue to ride.
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