OLOGY | Noah Rothman | February 27, 2012
Some suggest that if a moderate Republican like Rep. Ron Paul or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (who recently came out in support of a third party in America) were to seek and receive the Americans Elect nomination, they could secure Obama’s reelection. But history suggests that third party candidacies tend to syphon votes away from an unpopular incumbent regardless of the ideological stripes of the particular candidate and a third party bid is more likely help Republican’s chances in 2012.
First, a distinction; there are third party bids and there are third party bids. Among Democrats, Ralph Nader, who ran competitively as the Green party candidate in 2000 and 2004, is much reviled for taking votes away from Al Gore. But Gore won the popular vote in 2000 and Nader only captured less than 3 percent of the vote in a prosperous economy during peacetime.
Several more prominent candidacies serve to illustrate the high end of achievement open to third party candidates. Perhaps the most apt example in the last 50 years of what 2012 could look like is the independent bid of John Anderson in 1980.
In 1980, Anderson, a disaffected Republican, mounted a third party bid for the presidency when he failed to perform in a crowded GOP primary field. A moderate Republican with the support of a number of moderate and liberal politicians in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, on paper Anderson represented a threat to the Republican’s bid to unseat the incumbent Democratic president. But the prediction did not match the reality on Election Day.
Anderson won 8 percent of the popular vote to President Jimmy Carter’s 41 percent and Ronald Reagan’s 51 percent. That 8 percent came primarily from demographic groups that would traditionally have supported the Democrat.
Anderson won 11 percent of the 18-21-year-olds and 11 percent of 22-29-year-olds – youngest voters sided narrowly with Carter while 22-29-year-olds voted evenly for Reagan and Carter at 44 percent respectively. All other age demographics voted overwhelmingly for Reagan. Anderson won only 4 percent of GOP voters. He won 6 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of independents. Even 12 percent of self-described “liberals” voted for Anderson.
1980 is the closest approximation to what a third party presidential bid with steam behind it could accomplish in 2012 – a year with a stalled economy, high gas prices, flaring tensions with Iran and an incumbent Democratic president from the liberal wing of his party. But there are other recent examples that suggest a third party takes more votes away from the incumbent.
In 1992, Henry Ross Perot mounted a mostly self-funded candidacy for the presidency in which he challenged sitting Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. Perot won a whopping 19 percent of the popular vote, pushing Bush down to 37 percent and allowing Bill Clinton to win the presidency with only 43 percent of the popular vote. Perot, too, hurt Bush more than Clinton by taking votes away from traditionally conservative voting blocs.
Perot won 21 percent of male voters and only 17 percent of Democratic-leaning female voters. Perot won 17 percent of registered Republicans and 30 percent of independents. He took 18 percent of those that self-identify as conservative and those who identify as liberal and won 21 percent of self-described moderates.
The strongest possible candidate a third party would hope to nominate would be Ron Paul, who is presently performing well in the Republican primaries but not well enough to secure the nomination. To date, a number of demographically homogeneous states have held Republican primaries and several states have held Republican caucuses. Since caucuses are not representative of a ballot election and states like Iowa and New Hampshire do not represent the demographic diversity of the United States, Florida’s open GOP primary exit polls are the closest approximation to how a Paul candidacy would perform on the national level.
In the Sunshine State, Paul won 9 percent of men and 5 percent of women. He won a full quarter of voters between the ages of 18 and 29. He performed far stronger with voters making less than $50,000 per year than he did with voters making more. Paul won 16 percent of independents and only 5 percent of Republicans (Democrats were not sampled, although 2 percent of voters identified themselves to pollsters as such). Finally, Paul won 11 percent of self-described “liberals” or “moderates” and just 6 percent of “conservative” voters.
Sound familiar? Paul declined to contest Florida for a number of reasons and his showing was far worse than in other states where he did actively campaign, but this also would approximate a general election where the third party candidate would be drowned out by the pro-Republican and Democratic groups dominating the airwaves ahead of a general election. Paul, or any other third party candidate, would serve as a vote for “none of the above” for those disaffected moderates and liberals that cannot bring themselves to vote for the Republican candidate but also cannot pull the lever for Obama.
Members of the media that suggest Republicans have to keep Paul or Huntsman in the big tent or risk the results of the 2012 election are neglecting to consult history before making this proclamation. All the data we have suggests that Obama has the most to fear from a third party – even one led by a Republican.