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Odds Against Third-Party Bid Not as Long as They Seem

Thomas Friedman’s Sunday column, in which he predicted the emergence of a “serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her,” is attracting a lot of comment — and criticism — in different parts of the blogosphere.

Brendan Nyhan notes, for instance, that Mr. Friedman had predicted something similar would occur in 2008. And other writers have offered similar predictions in past election cycles.

In his column, Mr. Friedman seems to suggest that a successful third-party candidate might resemble the sort of technocratic moderate along the lines of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But it’s important to keep in mind that there are other types of third-party candidates who could emerge (say an economic populist with a strong anti-immigration message).

Nevertheless, I suspect these analysts are being too dismissive of the possibility of a “serious” third-party run of some kind in 2012, and that Mr. Friedman’s prediction has a reasonable possibility of coming true.

The typical response from academics and analysts when a writer suggests the possibility of a third-party  is to note that there are a lot of structural disadvantages that a third-party candidate would face, and that such candidates have not been very successful in the past.

The former is clearly true. For instance, a third-party candidate would probably need to win an outright majority of the electoral vote in order to be elected (a plurality would send the race to the House) — and that could be difficult in an era when many states are reliably Democratic or reliably Republican. Also, the third-party candidate would probably not be allowed to participate in debates unless he or she had already achieved at least 15 percent in the polls, which could create something of a Catch-22 for a candidate looking to improve his or her visibility.

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.

So the political climate could potentially be very favorable to a third-party candidate in 2012. Of how many cycles, since World War II, has that been true in the past?

First, we need to eliminate those cycles in which you had a popular incumbent for re-election: 1956 (Dwight D. Eisenhower), 1964 (Lyndon Baines Johnson), 1972 (Richard Nixon), 1984 (Ronald Reagan), and 1996 (Bill Clinton). You can make a case that 2004 belongs here as well: since George W. Bush’s approval ratings were still as high as 55-60 percent in late 2003, which is the time that an independent candidate would have been in the planning stages for his bid.

Next, we should eliminate cycles in which you had a manifestly strong candidate in one or both parties. This would include 1952 (Eisenhower), 1960 (John F. Kennedy and probably also Richard Nixon) and 2008 (Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton). I don’t think we can count 1980 here: Ronald Reagan proved to be a terrifically talented candidate, but voters took until quite late in the race to warm up to him.

The 1988 and 2000 cycles – when you had popular presidents leaving office, and their Vice Presidents nominated in their stead, might also have been intimidating to third-party candidates.

This doesn’t leave us with very many political cycles. We definitely have 1948, 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1992 – and possibly 1988, 2000 and 2004. In many of those years, there was some sort of third-party activity: H. Ross Perot in 1992, John B. Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968 (whose appeal was regional, but who got 13.5 percent of the popular vote and carried 5 states). Although these cases are far more marginal, you also had Strom Thurmond in 1948, who carried 4 states, and Ralph Nader in 2000, who gathered only about 3 million votes but probably swung the outcome of the election.

Of course, none of them won -– and only Mr. Perot, in 1992, was any real threat to do so. (Keep in mind that Mr. Perot led in some polls in 1992 before abruptly dropping out, and later re-entering, the race: had he not done that, and enabled Mr. Clinton to steal the spotlight, it is not impossible to imagine him having become our 42nd President.)

Certainly you can ask why, for instance, there wasn’t a viable third-party candidacy in 1976, a year in which the country was deeply distrustful of the establishment in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when the Democrats had a set of fairly uninspiring candidates, when the incumbent president, Gerald R. Ford, faced a strenuous primary challenge from Mr. Reagan, and when the economy had just exited 16 months of recession. If you had some algorithm to predict the likelihood of a third-party candidacy, 1976 would surely have come up fairly high on the list. And yet, the independent candidate with the largest vote total, Eugene McCarthy, gathered only 740,000 votes.

Nevertheless, the point remains that in the years that seemed favorable to an independent bid, you more often than not had some “interesting” third-party activity. What we might think of as viability is a much higher hurdle — and actually winning the Presidency, higher still.

So will Mr. Friedman see his dream candidate? Probably not. But if Mr. Friedman’s prediction is expressed too confidently, those who are critiquing him are making too much of a data set — the performance of third-party candidates in recent Presidential elections — that contains too few salient examples. Presidential elections are rare things to begin with, and it’s been rarer still to have a set of circumstances that are potentially so conducive to an independent bid.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.