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Nate Silver On The Potential For A Third Party Presidential Campaign

Statistical guru Nate Silver weighs in on the brouhaha in the blogosphere since Thomas Friedman posted his op-ed on the idea of a third party candidacy in 2012 (for a second time).

There have been 16 Presidential elections since World War II: in only one instance, 1992, was there a third-party candidate (H. Ross Perot) who looked at any point in the election like he was a serious threat to win the Presidency.

So, an analyst might say, the chances are 1-in-16 of a “serious” third-party bid, and presumably lower still of the candidate actually winning: those are pretty long odds, eh?

Actually, I don’t think that history is nearly as useful a guide as it seems.

It’s quite easy to make a case that the terrain could be favorable for a third-party candidate in 2012. Among other things:

1. Voters have extremely low opinions of both major parties — much lower than in the period from 1992-1994, when electoral constituencies were being re-shuffled and when Mr. Perot lost his bid.
2. By some measures, an increasing number of voters prefer to identify as belonging to neither major party.
3. The Republicans might field a particularly polarizing presidential nominee. Sarah Palin, in particular, were she to be nominated, might have trouble achieving 50 percent of the vote, even if Barack Obama were still fairly unpopular.
4. The employment picture is likely to improve only modestly by 2012, according to most economists, which could contribute toward continued dissatisfaction with Washington.
5. Whichever party wins control of the Senate and the House in November, its majorities are liable to be narrow, which is likely to lead to gridlock and the inability to make good on its campaign promises.
6. Moreover, there may be leadership fights in one or both parties, which are rarely good things from the standpoint of the public image of the parties.
7. If Republicans win control of the Congress, a third-party candidate could point out that the country had cycled through all four permutations of Congressional and Presidential leadership within the previous four political cycles: a Republican president with a Republican Congress (2005-06), a Republican president with a Democratic Congress (2007-08), a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress (2009-10), and a Democratic president with a Republican Congress (2011-12).
8. There is one major issue — the national debt — that neither party has much credibility on. A candidate who presented a “serious” plan to balance the budget could possibly gain traction that way.
9. There is another issue, Afghanistan, which could become more important to voters by 2012, but for which both the Democratic and Republican nominees are likely to take similar (pro-war) positions on.
10. There are two further issues, energy and immigration, where voters are unhappy with the status quo, but which appear to be in political stalemate.
11. The Citizens’ United decision makes it easier for a third-party candidate to raise large sums of money from corporations.
12. The Internet makes it easier for a candidate to go “viral” without having to rely on a traditional infrastructure.
13. It is not impossible to imagine a centrist or center-right independent candidate picking up some Tea Party support. Although many Tea Party voters are very conservative, there are others for whom dislike of the establishment could outweigh ideology.
14. There are also some blocks of dissatisfied liberal and Democratic voters. For instance, a candidate who took a more affirmative stance in support of gay rights could gain some support among gay and lesbian voters.
15. Finally — although I’m not sure this would be an advantage to a third-party candidate looking to cultivate an “outsider” image — there are several prominent politicians in both major parties who would probably benefit from running as independents in 2012, such as Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. These Senators could serve as spokespersons for an independent party and perhaps draw additional support to its presidential nominee in a few states.

Some of these factors — particularly #1, #3, #8 and #11 — are more important than others. And none of them will matter if, by early 2012, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has recovered to 55 percent or so. Whatever you think of Mr. Obama as a President, he is evidently capable of running a fairly strong campaign, and that would probably be enough to deter a credible independent candidate from running.

But what if the unemployment rate were still 9 percent in February 2012, and Barack Obama’s approval rating were 39 percent, and Ms. Palin had just won the South Carolina primary and looked like the probable Republican nominee? You think you’re not going to see a number of rich-and-famous people exploring a third-party bid? Under such a scenario, the “right” independent candidate might even be the favorite to take the Presidency.

Michael Bloomberg is the most obvious potential Independent candidate to fill this role. Any of the Senators Silver mentions could similarly meet his parameters, although Lieberman’s national profile and current status as an Independent would likely make any presidential run on his part more likely to be successful.

Nevertheless, Silver and Friedman ignore another major possibility going into 2012. This is the appeal of a radical centrist. While Silver is preoccupied with the potential for a staunch conservative to win the Republican nomination, the distinct possibility also exists for a moderate like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to escape a crowded primary field.  Unless we have a shock campaign from somebody like Clint Eastwood, only two candidates with a national profile fit this bill. The first is Ron Paul, who PPP pegged at 13% in a potential Independent bid against Mitt Romney and Obama. Second would be former Reform Party candidate and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who has shown interest in such a run.

Either way, Silver is correct in one major theme of his article. The politics of an Independent candidacy for President will largely be predicated upon what happens in the next year to President Obama and in the Republican Party primary season.

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  1. JT // Oct 6, 2010:

    ………. still garnered about19% of the popular vote in 1992, the best showing for an alternative presidential candidate ever, but he obviously didn’t come close to winning.

    [Lake: and zero electoral votes!]


    The Associated Press
    More News
    * Kansas secretary of state candidates will debate tonight in Topeka

    * Third-party candidates struggle to be heard, even on public television

    Democratic incumbent Chris Biggs hopes voters keep him in office after he was appointed earlier this year to fill a vacancy. Republican challenger Kris Kobach is a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and a former state GOP chairman best known for his work on immigration issues.

    The debate at the studios of KTWU, the public television station in Topeka, will include questions from an audience there. The program won’t be broadcast until Oct. 20.

    “It’s going to be very important because the secretary of state’s race this year is between two candidates who have diametrically opposed views on how to deal with voter fraud,” Kobach said before the event. “Voters will be presented with a clear choice.” *

    Read more:

    * [Lake: yeah, like two choices of beer, break fast cereal, automobiles, coffee, television channels …………..]

  3. JT JT October 6, 2010

    Daniel: “There is no reason a centrist cannot inherently win an election without major party backing. Jesse Ventura proved this to be the case; similarly, there was a Governor of Maine who plotted a similar course (except he lacked Venura’s star power). Despite some fiscally conservative rhetoric, Perot at his core was a centrist and led in the polls until he foolishly dropped out.”

    It’s been a while since I’ve heard someone invoke Ventura; for years after his election many Libertarian candidates constantly invoked him to show they could win major partisan elections (none of them did). They didn’t seem to consider (intentionally or not) the fact that Ventura was a celebrity candidate and a novelty in a race with two very weak and unpopular D&R candidates.

    I assume the governor you’re talking about in Maine was Angus King. He was a local celebrity with a popular TV show, and he was able to run many TV ads early on.

    Meanwhile, Perot was a billionaire who sank tens of millions of his own dollars into his campaign before he dropped out and many voters realized how nutty he was. He still garnered about19% of the popular vote in 1992, the best showing for an alternative presidential candidate ever, but he obviously didn’t come close to winning.

  4. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes October 5, 2010

    I didn’t say a centrist couldn’t win. That other guy did. I said a centrist party would eventually get coopted. Meaning virtually out of existance, defunct.
    & case in point the Reform party. Besides Perot,
    2 other candidates were Buchanan & Ventura. Both associated with the right, assuming Ventura’s flirtations with the LP is right.

  5. Andy Andy October 5, 2010

    Well, I think it is safe to say that nobody who is being talked about right now for the Libertarian Party’s Presidential nomination for 2012 will be this signifigant.

  6. Daniel Surman Daniel Surman October 5, 2010

    There is no reason a centrist cannot inherently win an election without major party backing. Jesse Ventura proved this to be the case; similarly, there was a Governor of Maine who plotted a similar course (except he lacked Venura’s star power). Despite some fiscally conservative rhetoric, Perot at his core was a centrist and led in the polls until he foolishly dropped out.

  7. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes October 5, 2010

    That’s what happens when you polarize the other axis-the left & right parts of the bell curve. Instead of polarizing the reactionary center of the bell curve.

  8. and not one word on the Electoral College, as Perot did not earn one electoral vote in 1992 or in 1996.

    It is not an impossibility, such as 1948, and 1968, but rare.

  9. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes October 5, 2010

    There must be a flaw in your game because I say not only could the GP & LP win if they help each other, also the CP & LP could win.
    See close election leftist coalition v nationalists Chile 1970. Allende DID win-narrowly.
    That makes the LP the kingmaker party.

  10. Dale Sheldon-Hess Dale Sheldon-Hess October 5, 2010

    Maybe I was overly specific.

    It’s not just that centrist can’t win this game; NO third party can win this game. No matter where you play–left, right or center–one of the two parties I placed will win.

    If politics is one-dimensional, third parties lose. Actually, you can play the same game in a two-dimensional political world (the ol’ social v. fiscal chart) and a third party STILL can’t win.

    If the two established parties can set their positions properly–and with 150 years of practice, that’s precisely what they’ve learned to do–then you can never beat them both. Plurality is a two-player game; the third player only gets to play kingmaker.

  11. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes October 5, 2010

    Agreed. Any movement for a centrist party will eventually get coopted by either the dems or the reps.
    Besides, what good is a centrist party? It is just consensus reactionary policies.
    What is needed is a electorially successful-viable-Progressive party. OR a defacto viable Progressive party-PLAS strategy Green & Libertarian candidates.
    The Progressive party cannot succeed on its own without libertarian help because it is split.
    Otherwise Teddy Roosevelt would have succeeded in 1912. He needed more left progressive support which mostly operates via the democratic party. Hence the democrat-Wilson, won.
    Obama won the dem nomination by tapping into the left progressive anti war vote.

  12. Dale Sheldon-Hess Dale Sheldon-Hess October 5, 2010

    “Centrist” cannot win under plurality voting.

    Let’s play a game: I put out 100 small tokens in a line; these are voters. To start the game, I will place two larger tokens, between any two voters; these are the two major party’s candidates. Each voter cast their vote for whichever party is closest to them (if you’re worried about ties, each gets half a vote for purposes of this game.)

    You win this game if you can place a third candidate anywhere on the line and win the election.


    I place one candidate between the 17th and 18th voter, and one between the 83rd and 84th. Nearly five out of six voters think the candidate on the left is too far left; nearly five out of six voters think the candidate on the right, is too far right.

    You lose.

    There’s nowhere you can play such that you can win this game.

    If you’re talking about a “centrist”, you’re implicitly accepting that politics is one-dimensional; and if politics is one-dimensional, centrist can’t win. Not under plurality.

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