Monday, October 22, 2012

Spoiler alert! Third-party candidate trivia

A "third party candidate" has never been elected President of the United States. Shifts to new majority parties (Democrats, Whigs, Republicans) are sometimes incorrectly reckoned as "third parties."

John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote and the electoral college vote, but was elected president in 1824 by the House of Representatives. In this election, four candidates from the same party obtained electoral college votes (between 37 and 99). This result solidified the two-party (and one nominee per party) system we have today.  This has served us well.

The most successful third party candidate for president was Teddy Roosevelt who came in second with 88 electors and 27.4% of the popular vote as the candidate of the new Progressive (or "Bull Moose") Party in 1912. The "Bull Moose" was basically Teddy and it's safe to say that he did so well because he had already been president. TR's candidacy paved the way for the Democrat challenger Woodrow Wilson to prevail. Wilson still would have won even if you combine the Progressive and Republican votes, but Roosevelt's challenge to his chosen successor made him incapable of maintaining any campaign momentum. The Republican incumbent William Howard Taft came in third. Interestingly, progressivism dominated both the Democrat and Republican parties at this time; TR mounted a new run because Taft wasn't progressive enough.

Roosevelt was initially a Progressive candidate in 1916 as well, but he became convinced that a third party run would simply throw the race to President Wilson (again). TR didn't want a vote for him to be a vote for Wilson, so he rejoined the Republicans and campaigned vigorously for Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson came very close to loosing.

It all came down to California, where margin of 0.38% separated the two major candidates and a switch of merely 1,887 votes would have changed the outcome.There was a third party candidate named Allan Benson who got 42,883 votes, but as he was the Socialist candidate, he probably pulled most if not all his votes from Wilson (but as both Wilson and Hughes were progressives, it is difficult to know for sure how it would have affected the outcome).

Legend has it that Hughes went to bed on election night in 1916 thinking that he was the newly-elected president. When a reporter called him the next morning to get his reaction to Wilson's late comeback, the person who answered the phone told the reporter, "The president is asleep." The reporter retorted, "When he wakes up, tell him he isn't the president."

The last third party candidate to garner any electoral college votes was George Wallace who got 46 electoral votes in 1968. He did not realistically hope to garner the majority of electoral votes which is required to win the presidency, but his strategy was to keep Nixon and Humphrey from getting a majority of electors and thus throw the election to the House of Representatives (as in 1824).

There, the voting goes by block (one vote per state, with divided states ending up with a blank ballot). Since de/segregation was an issue of the day and he was the only pro-segregation candidate, Wallace hoped to get the southern states to vote as a block and thus beat out the other states which would be split between Nixon and Humphrey or end up casting blank ballots. The electoral college was nearly abolished after this election.

Third party candidates have a more viable role as spoilers, lending truth to the old admonition that "a vote for A. is really a vote for B."

In 1980, John Anderson obtained 6.6% of the popular vote. Although his total added to Carter's 41% would not have been enough for Carter to prevail, Anderson was polling much higher before the election and his candidacy created a "two against one" dynamic for the incumbent. In the summer, it was nearly a 3-way split. Even though he was a Republican, it was generally viewed that Anderson pulled more votes away from Carter than from Reagan. Interestingly, the first debate was not between Reagan and Carter, but Reagan and Anderson. Even though the final tally did not make the difference, Anderson may have pulled momentum away from the incumbent president earlier in the race.

A far more direct impact was made by Ross Perot as a spoiler to George Bush in 1992. Perot actually led the two main candidates in the polls in June. Although Perot drew support from both Democrats and Republicans, his candidacy was widely beleived to hurt Bush more than Clinton (usually, third party candidates are more advantageous for the incumbent by dividing the opposition). In the final election, Perot obtained 18.9% of the popular vote. If only half of Perot's votes had gone to Bush, that would have given him an edge over Clinton (47% to 43%). It is difficult to determine how this would have affected the electoral college, but it certainly seems possible (if not likely) than Vermont, California, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would have gone the other way, giving Bush 286 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Although he did not become president, there is little doubt that Ross Perot likely changed the outcome of the 1992 election.

In 1996, Perot ran again, but was not as successful and did not change the outcome. Even if all of Perot's 8% were added to Dole's 41% it would merely have equaled Clinton's 49%. But it is worth noting that Perot's candidacy probably ensured that Clinton only received a minority of the popular vote again.

Ralph Nader got only 3% of the popular vote in 2000, but when the major candidates were only 0.5% apart, it was more than enough to make a difference. And in Florida (the state whose electors determined the final outcome in the electoral college) the race was much tighter. Out of nearly 6 million votes cast, George W. Bush prevailed with only 537 votes in the final outcome. Ralph Nader got 97,488 votes in Florida, and it's very hard to imagine that any of those would have gone for Bush over Gore. Would other conservative candidates have evened it out? If the votes that were cast for the Libertarian, Constitution, Natural Law, and Reform Party candidate (Pat Buchanan in 2000) were added up, they would fall nearly 60,000 votes short of the consumer-protecting candidate of the Green Party.

Given that the outcome of the 2000 election lay in the balance and that the attack on America in September of 2001 and two following wars were just around the corner, it is certain that third party candidate Ralph Nader would never have been elected president, but he certainly changed history.

The presidential election of 2012 could be a very close race. Will a spoiler determine the outcome?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Duverger's law