Sabato's Crystal Ball

Timing Is Everything: When Could We See an Independent Candidate in 2012?

Geoffrey Skelley, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics December 15th, 2011

Much remains to be decided in determining the dramatis personae in next November’s 57th production of the American presidential election. Will it be Obama vs. Romney? Will it be Obama vs. Gingrich? Or could Obama face off against, as Rhodes Cook recently discussed, someone else entirely? Those questions will be answered in the coming months. But there could be further plot intrigue afoot in the form of a third party candidate. Given the political landscape, a candidate from the left, center or right could play a significant role in November 2012 depending on who the GOP nominee is. But recent history suggests that we won’t have a third party candidate until we get further along in the script.

In 1968, George Wallace ran a strong third party campaign, taking 46 electoral votes (all in the South), and winning 13.5% of the popular vote. Wallace was the last third party candidate to mount a long-term campaign. Having been competitive in Democratic primaries in 1964, where he won about a third of the vote or more matched up against favorite son candidates in Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin, Wallace indicated his interest in running as a third party candidate in 1966. By the spring of 1967, he was mounting northern campaign tours to appeal to voters outside of his southern base. Thus, by November 1968, he essentially had been campaigning for two years. Such a third party campaign has not happened since.

The more recent third party candidates demonstrate the kind of circumstances we could expect for someone to challenge the Democratic and Republican candidates in 2012. In 1980, John B. Anderson mounted an unexpectedly strong campaign for the GOP nomination. In late March 1980, with it becoming clear that he could not win the Republican crown, he began considering an independent bid and eventually became a national independent candidate at the end of April. Another example is Ross Perot, who announced his openness to running as an independent on Larry King Live in February 1992. Soon afterward, volunteers went to work to get his name on the ballot nationwide. Ralph Nader, who ran the last third party campaign of note, only announced he was running at the end of February 2000, when he promised to run a “real campaign” that would embolden the Green Party.

If there is going to be a significant third party challenger this time around, that person probably will not announce his or her intentions until we are in the late winter or early spring of 2012. If someone elects to follow the Perot and Nader examples, a candidate could announce a third party bid during the “February Freeze,” the three week lull between the Nevada caucuses and the Michigan and Arizona primaries. This calendar opening will at the very least provide ample opportunity for speculation about independent candidacies.

One factor to consider is the effect of organizations such as Americans Elect, a group that wants to use an online primary to select a Democrat and Republican in some order to form a bipartisan ticket to garner middle-of-the-road votes. Such an auspicious goal should be viewed with skepticism given the fact that becoming part of such an enterprise would likely do significant harm to a candidate’s future in his or her party. However, moderate groups could work to get someone like Michael Bloomberg into the race in order to take advantage of the ever-worsening partisanship of Washington and appeal to frustrated centrists.  Some third party developments are closer to being actualized: former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has stated that he will be announcing his candidacy at some point in the near future as a part of a new “Justice Party” that could possibly take votes from President Obama.

But we could also see Republicans jump ship to run as third party candidates. Jon Huntsman, viewed by many as a moderate voice in the GOP field, has the personal wealth and appeal to make such a move if he fails to get the Republican nod, though he has denied interest in doing so. Meanwhile, if Romney is the nominee, the far right might put forward its own candidate, perhaps someone like Sarah Palin. Finally, remember that Rep. Ron Paul, who is currently running for the Republican nomination, was the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in 1988 (he took a paltry 0.47% of the vote). Paul has ruled out running for reelection to the House, and his credible but long-shot GOP candidacy is one not necessarily focused on winning the nomination, but instead on spreading an ideology. He has notably not ruled out a third party candidacy. Complicating a Libertarian run by Paul is the latest news that former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, having gained no traction in the GOP field, plans to announce his intention to run for the Libertarian Party nomination. However, Johnson’s candidacy will not make nearly the splash that a Paul run would.

In the end, we can only wait and see what happens. Just know that if we are going to have a major third party candidate, that person won’t make a move until the campaign drama is already deep into Act I.