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A Third-Party Presidential Candidate?

A Third-Party Presidential Candidate?

The unpopularity of Joe Biden and Donald Trump has created a demand for an alternative. What does history suggest about the chances for a successful third-party candidacy?

Michael Mandelbaum

This coming November Americans will elect a president, and the formal process of doing so begins on January 14 with the Iowa Republican caucus. At this point, the identities of the two major-party candidates seem all but certain: barring unexpected events the election will pit the Democratic incumbent, Joe Biden, against the Republican former president Donald Trump. The two candidates, and the prospect for a repeat of the 2020 election in which they first opposed each other, are massively unpopular. By some accounts 70 percent of all voters would like a different choice for president and the public, by solid majorities, dislikes each man. Those sentiments have given rise to hopes for, discussions about, and even some steps to create an alternative to the two, usually called a third-party presidential candidate.

That commonly used term, it should be noted, misleads in two ways. What those discontented with the choice between Biden and Trump want is not another full-fledged political party but simply another candidate. Moreover, they don’t want simply an additional choice–there will be several candidates on the presidential ballot next fall, as there almost always are–but rather a non-major-party candidate who can attract more than a handful of votes and therefore has a serious chance of becoming president.

The United States has had, since the beginning of the twentieth century, three such candidacies. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, officially the candidate of the Progressive Party but really running as an individual rather than as the nominee of any party (he himself had formed that party and it lasted for only eight years), won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and carried six states, earning 88 electoral votes. In 1968, Alabama governor George Wallace received 13.5 percent of the popular vote, most of it from the South, where he won 34.3 percent. In 1992, H. Ross Perot, a wealthy businessman, received 18.9 percent of the overall vote. What do these episodes suggest about the prospects for a formidable alternative candidate this year?

The three relatively successful candidates in the past each had personal qualities that enabled them to attract attention and support. Roosevelt had a particular advantage: like Trump, he had already held the office he was seeking. More significantly, the Wallace and Perot candidacies filled a gap in the political marketplace. Each based his campaign on a particular position, which neither major party was taking, on an issue of concern to large numbers of Americans: in the case of Wallace, opposition to the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s; for Perot the need to reduce federal deficits. Roosevelt went farther than did his two major-party opponents–the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and the eventual winner, the Democratic governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson–in endorsing the progressive causes of the early twentieth century; but the differences between him and them were not as sharp as the differences between the alternative candidates and the major-party nominees in 1968 and 1992. (Wilson was an avowed progressive, Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor.) Wallace and Perot each offered something that a large slice of the electorate wanted but that the Republican and Democratic candidates were not promising to provide.

The three alternative candidacies had another important feature in common. None won the presidency, yet all were successful in that the candidates who did win proceeded, once in office, to incorporate into their own governing programs the platforms on which Roosevelt, Wallace, and Perot had campaigned. Wilson adopted a more progressive agenda as president than he had espoused as a candidate. Richard Nixon, the winner in 1968, implemented conservative racial policies that became known, collectively, as the “Southern strategy.” Bill Clinton, the winner in 1992, reduced the budget deficit (privately complaining that that policy had turned him into “an Eisenhower Republican.”) The new presidents acted as they did for the obvious purpose of attracting the Roosevelt, Wilson, and Perot voters in the next election. In this way, those who supported the alternative candidates did not waste their votes. They ultimately got at least some of what they wanted.

The politics of 2024 do not fit this pattern. The American political landscape lacks an issue that, like race in the late 1960s and the deficit in the early 1990s, large numbers of voters believe is not being adequately addressed by the two major parties. Ironically, the federal deficit and cumulative debt are larger now both in absolute terms and as a percentage of national output than was the case during Perot’s presidential candidacy, and neither Republicans nor Democrats are seriously committed to reducing them. Yet Americans are not, in large numbers, demanding such a policy. Perhaps some day national indebtedness will become an issue about which voters believe the two major parties have behaved in dangerously derelict fashion, which will generate support for an alternative to these parties’ presidential candidates; but there is no evidence that that day will arrive in 2024.

The public dissatisfaction with the likely major-party candidates has to do not with the positions they espouse but with their personal characteristics: Biden’s chief problem is the toll his age seems to have taken on his level of energy and his cognitive condition. His possible association with his son’s apparently widespread and lucrative influence-peddling also renders him unacceptable to many voters. The objections to Trump stem from his personal deportment, especially his habit of name-calling, and doubts that he is committed to democratic norms, which his campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the events at the Capitol of January 6, 2021 have reinforced.

The two likely major-party nominees, that is, are unprecedentedly unpopular not because the public does not like their policies. Partisans on each side do of course dislike the policies of the candidate of the other party, but that would be true of whatever candidate the other party nominated. Rather, Biden and Trump have unusually high disapproval ratings because, their policies aside, many consider them personally unfit for office. An appreciable number of Democrats approve of Biden’s policies but don’t want him to run again. An appreciable number of Republicans approve of what Trump did as president but don’t want him to occupy that office again. Unlike in 1912, 1968, and 1992, Americans in 2024 are discontented not (or not only) because they want particular policies adopted, but rather (or also) because they want particular candidates discarded.

How might the public get what it wants? The primary elections could conceivably yield different Republican and/or Democratic nominees. If Donald Trump stumbles in the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the dynamics of the selection process might change to his disadvantage. Joe Biden has less formidable competition, but if his electoral performances in the primaries turn out to be embarrassingly poor, his party might be moved to find another candidate.

However, if the nation is to avoid, in 2024, a rerun of the presidential election of 2020, the impetus is likely to come not from the primary elections but rather from the personal trajectories of the two leading candidates. A public episode dramatically and unmistakably illustrating serious physical or cognitive infirmity, or both, might turn the public so strongly against Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy that the Democratic Party would feel compelled to replace him. Similarly, Donald Trump might be convicted of one or more of the felonies with which he has been charged, which might, in turn, disqualify him for the presidency in the eyes even of Republicans previously loyal to him. If such episodes occurred after either or both men had been formally nominated, it would fall to their party’s leaders to select their replacements. In that case, these leaders would be most likely to promote the party’s vice-presidential nominee to the top of the ticket.

If that occurred, the new presidential candidates would not evoke much enthusiasm beyond strongly partisan Democrats or Republicans. The incumbent Democratic vice president Kamala Harris has not made a favorable impression on the country during her three years in office; but at least she is not in her 80s. Whomever Donald Trump selects as his running mate, it has been reported, must publicly agree with Trump’s assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, his proclamation of which has made him unacceptable to many voters; but at least the person Trump chooses won’t be a convicted felon.

Large numbers of Americans would dislike at least one of the two new candidates; but that has become the norm in a country whose politics are sharply polarized. Still, voters might take some comfort from the fact that their dislike would arise from what the candidates propose to do, not, as in the case of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, from who they are.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His book The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made–about Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, and Mao–will be published in September.

Image: The presidential podium. (Gage Skidmore: Flickr)

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