During every presidential campaign season, a number of underdog candidates decide to run for the White House – most of whom have no hopes of ever getting elected.
U.S. politics has had a long tradition of ‘external’ candidates who have added some splash and color to otherwise routine election campaigns. Such third-party candidates have ranged from highly-electable serious, legitimate politicians/businessmen to eccentrics from the outermost fringes.
International Business Times spoke with Jamie Chandler, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City, to discuss this political phenomenon.
IB TIMES: I know each case is unique, but what are some of the reasons these underdogs and third-party candidates undertake the rigors of a national campaign?
CHANDLER: There are a number of reasons why underdog candidates run for President. Some enter believing they have a good chance of winning.
For example, Republican Tim Pawlenty was touted as a strong contender in the current election season. He was a popular governor of Minnesota between 2003 and 2011 and offered a strong appeal to social conservatives. And he came in third in this year’s August 13 Ames, Iowa straw poll behind Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. But Pawlenty was not able to capture the attention of important Republican activists and the media.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are two others in this vein.
Huntsman, a Mormon, was an admired governor and U.S. Ambassador to China (a post once occupied by former President George H.W. Bush), but has been rejected by Tea Party supporters because of his connection to President Barack Obama. Gingrich, a favorite of the Tea Party, has been rejected by evangelical voters because of his extramarital affairs.
Others run knowing that they can’t win, but do so to promote their ideas, or to be the voice of an underserved segment of a party.
Perennial candidates, such as Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich are two examples. Besides the current season, Paul ran for president in 1988 and 2008, representing libertarians. Libertarians have received little attention in the past from the parties’ leaders, but Paul’s ideas of trade protection, eliminating the Federal Reserve, and keeping government out of people’s personal lives are gaining traction, particularly amongst younger Republicans.
During the 2004 and 2008 presidential election season, Kucinich delivered the strongest liberal perspectives on foreign policy, and on less-prominent domestic issues. He has since kept the pressure on the President Obama to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and NATO bombings of Libya.
IB TIMES: The two-party system reigns supreme – but sometimes a third-party candidate somehow breaks through and attracts some support (Ross Perot in 1992, George Wallace in 1968). How did they manage this? Aren’t electoral laws designed to discourage (or even prohibit) third-party candidates?
CHANDLER: Successful third-party candidates not only promote ideas, but also spoil the chances of winning for one of the major parties’ general election candidates. Strong third-party candidates emerge during critical moments in American politics, when the power balance within one of the major parties has tilted too far in support for one coalition over another.
They are successful because they’re able to capitalize on these circumstances with their campaign tactics and favorable media coverage. Third-party candidates’ campaigns give support to the out-of-favor party coalitions and surface potential solutions to looming political problems.
In the 1992 presidential election, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot drew votes from President George H.W. Bush, with his pro-business agenda. In 2000, Ralph Nader drew votes from Vice President Al Gore, because he appealed to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. During the 1990s, liberal Democrats had fallen out of favor. President Clinton had ushered in a “New Democrat” strategy wherein the party moderated its views in hopes of capturing moderate and independent voters siding with Republicans.
Spoilers can also help determine who wins the election because they magnify the dissimilarities between the major candidates. In most cases the dissimilar candidate beats the candidate from the split-party. And this allows spoilers to become kingmakers.
For example, Perot had campaigned under a platform of balancing the budget, trade protectionism, social freedoms and ending the outsourcing of jobs. In 1994, the Republican Party took control of Congress partly because it was able to draw in a large share of Republican voters who supported Perot. Although Perot’s libertarian positions were ignored, Republicans put balancing the budget, anti-crime legislation, job-creation, and fiscal responsibility at the center of their Contract for America. Many of Perot’s ideas are now part of the campaign agendas of the 2012 Republican Presidential candidates.
In 2005, the Democrats appointed liberal and former 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean as Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Dean’s ‘50-state strategy’ drew in liberal and red-state Democrats enabling the party to retake control of Congress in 2006 and the Presidency in 2008. Liberal Democrats are now firmly in control of the House Democratic Party Caucus. George Wallace, who ran as the American Independent Party candidate in 1968, hoped to force the House of Representatives to determine the results of the 1968 election by receiving enough electoral votes to give him the role of power broker. The Constitution gives the House this power when a presidential election doesn’t yield a plurality of electoral votes to any one candidate, or when there is a tie.
Probably the biggest challenge to third-party candidates is the electoral rules of the major parties or state electoral laws. The Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, a committee of representatives from both parties tasked with organizing general election debates, has mostly ignored the inclusion of third-party candidates unless there is enough support from the media and the public for their inclusion.
Although Ross Perot was included in 1992, Nader was excluded in 2000. State laws also sometimes make it difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, or for third-parties to become long-term, viable institutions. Most states require third-parties to achieve a minimum level of votes in each election in order to get on the ballot in the next election or receive public matching funds.
The U.S.’s winner-take-all voting system doesn’t reward third-parties when they get a significant, but non-winning, share in Congressional elections. By contrast, multi-party voting systems in many foreign countries reward political parties with a seat in Parliament when their candidates achieve some threshold of votes, say, for example, 10 percent.
IB TIMES: Does a third-party candidate have any influence on the rhetoric and policies of the eventual winner? For example, when Wallace ran in 1968, did his relatively successful showing goad Richard Nixon to move further to the right?
CHANDLER: George Wallace’s 1968 campaign appealed to white southern Democrats who were disaffected with the parties’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights act, the party’s liberalization through the 1960s, and its shift towards focusing on urban voters.
Wallace’s candidacy helped Nixon recognize that he could win the support of these conservative voters who had traditionally voted Democrat. In 1968, Nixon implemented a “Southern Strategy”, and catered his campaign rhetoric to them. The strategy became more successful in subsequent elections helping Nixon win re-election in 1972, Ronald Reagan the Presidency in 1980, and the Republicans Congress in 1994. White Southerners are now bedrock, loyal Republican voters.
IB TIMES: Who was the most successful third-party candidate in U.S. history? And what influence did he have on national policy after the election?
CHANDLER: Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was probably the most successful third-party candidate, running in the 1948 presidential election. A former Democrat, Thurmond ran under the State’s rights Democratic Party, supporting anti-federal intervention in southern segregationist practices. Thurmond won 39 electoral votes in what has been called one of the closest elections in American history.
Although Republican Thomas Dewey was the expected winner, Harry Truman was able to overcome the split in his party to win re-election. The election was so close that some newspapers reported erroneously Truman’s defeat.
Thurmond’s candidacy initiated the process of southern Democrats migrating to the Republican Party.
IB TIMES: Let’s talk about money. Obviously, billionaires like Perot and Mike Bloomberg can finance their own campaigns. But what about less well-heeled third-party candidates? Does running for President place them in serious debt?
CHANDLER: Some third-party and independent candidates tend to raise funds through grassroots efforts and rely on public matching funds because their personal fortunes are too small to support their campaigns. This strategy allows these candidates to not fall into serious debts.
However, more recently, the major party candidates have begun to use their personal wealth in combination with fundraising to pay for their primary campaigns because it allows them afford the expensive costs associated with campaign advertising and voter mobilization, and avoid the state-level legal restrictions associated with the acceptance of public matching funds.
These candidates can also argue that they are unencumbered by the influence of special interests. Several successful candidates such as former New Jersey senator and Governor Jon Corzine, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, Mayor Bloomberg, and Ross Perot have followed this course of action.
IB TIMES: Can you comment on these following black candidates -- why they ran, and what they accomplished? Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Shirley Chisholm.
CHANDLER: As discussed above, these candidates have added voices to underrepresented segments of their party. Shirley Chisholm, who bid for the Democratic nomination in 1972, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Al Sharpton in 2008, gave voice to African American and poor voters. Although African American voters are a loyal coalition within the Democratic Party, they historically receive little attention from the major candidates unless the election going to be a close race. In these cases, African American voters can tip the balance toward the party’s nominee. African American voters are a captured segment of the Democratic Party (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender voters are another example, although in the 2010 election gay male voters voted 34 percent for Republican candidates compared to their historical average of 17 percent.).
The ‘captured’ Democratic groups have no other alternative to support the other party because the Republicans focus on white middle-class suburban voters. Many argue that these past African American candidates enabled President Obama’s campaign victory in 1988.