Dancing On The Third Rail
I would liken a third party candidacy in America to tap dancing down a razor blade. It has been, historically speaking; a fool’s errand that leads nowhere and often helps a weaker candidate and the party on the other side of the political battle come out on top. However if Republicans continue to play games like they did in Colorado over the weekend, awarding all 34 of it’s delegates to Ted Cruz and snubbing frontrunner Donald Trump without a single vote being cast by Colorado citizens, a storm could ensue. Honestly, how can Republicans take themselves seriously if they think they can just hijack the process and ignore the will of the people altogether? That is how it looks and frankly who could really blame Trump for launching a third party candidacy, especially if he gets squeezed in the end because of backroom deals like this one?
Party bosses will tell you they can do whatever they want. That’s true. They can also lose badly in the process. You see there is a thing about general fairness in America when it comes to elections and if it looks like you don’t care what the people think, I believe there is a stiff political price to pay for that.
Historically speaking third party candidates have never taken home the big prize but have often played the role of spoiler. It is a tough road but in a year when nothing seems quite normal and the electorate is fuming mad, I am not willing to make any predictions at this point about the success of any such run. However if Trump can hang onto his 40% support, you might wonder could he pull it off especially if the GOP puts up some impotent beltway insider like Paul Ryan.
The biggest party crasher came in 1912, when former President Teddy Roosevelt, angry about the policies of his White House successor William Howard Taft jumped into the race. Teddy formed the Bull Moose Party, better known as the Progressives and had a strong showing. Roosevelt won six states and 88 electoral votes with 27.4% of the popular vote. He became the only third party candidate to finish better than third place by getting more support than President Taft who had a meager 23% and just 8 electoral votes. When the dust cleared, the nations first true socialist President Woodrow Wilson collected the rest, getting 42% of the popular vote but more importantly 435 electoral votes and the keys to the White House.
In 1948, all sorts of folks thought they should run for President. Democrat Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat and picked up just two and a half percent of the popular vote but carried four states and got 39 electoral votes. Vice President Henry Wallace ran a strong campaign as a Progressive he also got two and a half percent but zero electoral college votes. In the end President Harry Truman did defeat Governor Thomas Dewey of New York picking up 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.
In 1968, Democrat George Wallace ran as an American Independent party candidate on the platform of keeping racial segregation in place. Wallace carried 5 states with 13.5% of the vote and picked up 46 electoral votes. But it was Richard Nixon who truly benefitted from a fractured Democratic Party and was able to win with 301 electoral votes to Hubert Humphrey’s 191. Nixon’s margin of victory was only seven tenths of a percent and Wallace was the clear difference.
More recently in 1980, liberal Republican John Anderson ran as an independent but only picked up 6.6% and was not a factor. If Ronald Reagan had gotten another 6 points, it may well have been the biggest blowout in American history. Jimmy Carter only carried 6 states and would have likely lost at least 3 more if not for Anderson. As a historical note Reagan taking 91% of the Electoral College is the most lopsided victory ever for a non-incumbent President.
The biggest third party split in recent years was of course Ross Perots run in 1992 as a true independent with no party affiliation. Perot got almost 19% of the vote and no Electoral votes but was the clear difference and the reason Bill Clinton went on to victory with just 43% of the vote. Incumbent George H.W. Bush gathered nearly 38% but lost too many voters to the Perot campaign.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump. He has a solid core following of voters that it seems will support him no matter what happens. He could conceivably post better numbers than Roosevelt’s 27.4 % in 1912. He almost certainly would post better numbers than George Wallace or Ross Perot but could it actually translate into wins in the Electoral College? The real next question would be what kind of voters would he attract? I think it is possible he could collect more from the weak ranks of Democrats who are not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as their nominee than some expect. I also think whomever runs on the Republican ticket could be starring at a third place finish but it occurs to me that might be exactly what some in the establishment want. At least that way they can keep one their own in the White House, Hillary Clinton.
Ah, but like I said in this year where nothing seems quite normal I am not willing to bet against the Trump machine or the man with the populist message.