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.