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May 16, 2007

The Third Party Nadir

Last week, antiwar Republican Senator Chuck Hagel told CBS's Face the Nation that he would not rule out an independent presidential bid in '08, and called on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to join him on the ticket. Taken together with Bloomberg's recent re-launching of his personal website, Senator Hagel's comments have fueled renewed speculation about a serious independent run emerging in 2008. However, a brief look at the historical record indicates that Chuck and Mike—should they decide to team up—would face a daunting task.

Most of us remember the famously big-eared billionaire H. Ross Perot and his famous fondness for charts and graphs. Perot actually led George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as late as June, before mysteriously dropping out of the race. He reappeared a few months later, polling high enough to participate in the debates, but he lost much ground in his time off. The Texan finished with a respectable, though distantly third, 19 percent of the popular vote.

Illinois Representative John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican (yeah, they used to have those), ran as a centrist independent. Anderson started out around 25 percent in polls, but his numbers dropped throughout the campaign and he garnered less than seven percent on election day. Anderson was quite popular on college campuses and has since become an advocate of instant-runoff voting.

George Wallace, segregationist governor of Alabama, made a notable cameo in Forrest Gump. After some initial success with Northern blue-collar types, Wallace fell out of favor outside the South; he finished with about 14 percent of the popular vote. However, racism's appeal persisted in the Deep South as Wallace is the last third-party candidate to carry a state in the Electoral College (he took five: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas).

Strom Thurmond, our only centenarian senator, was governor of South Carolina in 1948. He decided to run for President after the Democratic convention adopted a civil-rights plank in its platform, and so was similar to Wallace in that he was a segregationist Democrat third-party candidate. He didn't fare quite as well as Wallace, however, winning less than three percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes (all in the Deep South). Thurmond's run came back to haunt then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott 54 years later when Lott claimed to have supported Thurmond's candidacy. (Never mind that Lott turned seven a month before the 1948 election.)

Perhaps the least reassuring thing about American third-party presidential bids is that the most successful one—at least in the post-Civil War era—was orchestrated by a former president. Unhappy with the conservative direction of successor William Howard Taft's administration, Teddy Roosevelt broke ranks with the Republican Party to form the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" Party, and ran on a platform dubbed the "New Nationalism." Roosevelt performed astonishingly well by third-party standards, winning 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, both of which bested Taft. However, the Bull Moose's main accomplishment in 1912 was to throw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who easily overcame a divided Republican camp.

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