- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With John McCain having effectively clinched the Republican presidential nomination and with Barack Obama making great strides toward becoming the Democratic nominee, speculation has again begun to mount over the impact that a third-party candidate might have on the general election. Such speculation cooled considerably after wealthy New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared on Feb. 28 that he “will not be” a presidential candidate this year. Third-party musings began to stir again this week after former Republican Rep. Bob Barr announced on Monday that he would seek the Libertarian Party nomination at its national convention in Denver over the Memorial Day weekend.

Throughout the past 100 years or so, third-party candidates have had disparate impacts.

During the first half of the 20th century, three third-party candidates (Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert La Follette in 1924 and Strom Thurmond in 1948) won majorities or pluralities of the popular vote in statewide presidential contests.

In 1912, then-former President Theodore Roosevelt, representing the “Bull Moose Party” (or Progressive Party), won six states and became the only third-party candidate to finish higher than third. His 88 electoral votes and 27.4 percent of the popular vote exceeded the eight electoral votes and 23.2 percent of the popular vote claimed by incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft. The split within the Republican Party paved the way for Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson to win an electoral-vote landslide with less than 42 percent of the popular vote. In the absence of Roosevelt’s candidacy, Taft probably would have prevailed.

Running as a progressive in 1924, La Follette won his home state of Wisconsin, but his candidacy did not affect the outcome.

Representing the segregationist States’ Rights (“Dixiecrat”) Party, Mr. Thurmond, a Democrat who later became a Republican, won the electoral votes of four Southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina). The Democratic split did not prevent Truman from prevailing.

No third-party candidate has won a plurality or a majority of the popular vote in a single state since 1968, when George Wallace, the former Democratic governor of Alabama running on the American Independent Party line, captured the 45 electoral votes of five Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi). Nevertheless, Mr. Wallace’s feat, which included winning the electoral votes of four of the six states won by 1964 Republican candidate Barry Goldwater (who also won his home state of Arizona and South Carolina but not Arkansas), did not alter the eventual outcome of the 1968 contest. The 1968 Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who almost certainly would have won those five Southern states in the absence of the Wallace candidacy (as Mr. Nixon easily did in 1972), still won a convincing electoral-vote majority (301-191) in 1968 over Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey — despite a very close Nixon plurality (43.4 percent to 42.7 percent) in the national popular vote between the two major-party candidates.

John Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries and perhaps best known for his proposal to increase the federal gas tax by 50 cents per gallon and reduce the Social Security tax rate by 50 percent, received 6.6 percent of the 1980 general-election vote without affecting the Reagan landslide (489-49) in the Electoral College.

Despite receiving nearly 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 (the second-highest percentage ever for a third-party candidate) and 8 percent in 1996, Texas businessman Ross Perot never won a plurality or majority in a single state, although he did finish second in three states in 1992.

While it is occasionally reported that Mr. Perot’s 1992 performance tipped the election from incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush to Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, a post-election analysis based on exit-poll surveys revealed that Mr. Perot may have shifted only a single state (Ohio) from the Bush column to the Clinton column. Interestingly, a shift of less than 1.1 percent of the Ohio popular vote in 2004 could have made John Kerry president; and a shift of less than 0.15 percent of the Ohio popular vote in 1976 (coupled with a shift of less than 1 percent of the Mississippi vote) could have retained Gerald Ford in the White House and spared the nation and world of more than 32 years (and counting) of Jimmy Carter’s insufferable preaching and self-righteousness. But a Perot-instigated shift of Ohio from the Clinton column to the Bush column in 1992 would not have altered the 1992 result. Mr. Clinton still would have achieved a 349-189 electoral-vote victory.

If Mr. Wallace did not affect the 1968 outcome even though he won five states and if Mr. Perot did not affect the 1992 result even though he received nearly 20 percent of the popular votes, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader certainly determined the winner of the 2000 presidential contest. And he did so without coming remotely close to winning a single state and after receiving less than 3 percent of the national vote. Among the nearly 6 million Florida votes split between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, Mr. Bush prevailed by only 537 votes (less than 0.01 percent). Mr. Nader, who received significantly less than 2 percent of Florida’s vote in 2000, nonetheless claimed nearly 100,000 Florida votes. It is a certainty that Mr. Gore’s share of the Nader voters who would have cast their ballots for either of the two major-party candidates if Mr. Nader were not on the ballot would have easily offset Mr. Bush’s 537-vote margin. That would have delivered Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency to Mr. Gore, whom Mr. Bush defeated by five electoral votes.

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