Democrats should fear a third-party challenge in 2012

Independent runs by Ron Paul or Sarah Palin could cripple the GOP — but they're unlikely. A presidential bid by Michael Bloomberg, on the other hand ...

The Week

The first votes have not yet been cast in the Republican primaries, and we're already beginning to hear talk of independent runs for the presidency. In part, that springs from a sense of dissatisfaction — or at least surprise — with the way the primary field has performed this year, and with the candidates who appear to have risen to the top. Few would have guessed that after the surprising Tea Party triumph in the 2010 midterms, the top two contenders for the GOP nomination would be the man who implemented a precursor of ObamaCare and a longtime Beltway insider whose personal baggage had long kept him from serious consideration. 

Barring a surprise in the next five or six weeks, there won't be a candidate to quickly unite the conservative base, the moderates, and the independents. If the primary competition lasts deep into March and April, it will pit these elements of the Republican umbrella against each other. In that kind of environment, it's possible that a schism could develop that produces an opportunity for an independent candidate — or perhaps more than one.

Historically, such candidates have had little effect on the results of general elections, although there have been notable exceptions, two of which are quite recent. Ross Perot's mainly self-financed independent candidacy in 1992 won a significant percentage of the popular vote. And although Perot failed to win a single vote in the electoral college system, the independent's votes allowed Bill Clinton to win several battleground states over incumbent President George H. W. Bush. In 2000, the impact of Ralph Nader's Green Party bid was negligible — except in Florida, where he took just enough votes to give the younger George Bush a razor-thin win, and with it, the presidency.

Oddly enough, both of those exceptions took place in times of relative peace and prosperity. There had been a mild recession in 1990-91, but the economy had already begun to recover by the time the 1992 cycle began, and Bush the Elder had just won a war against Saddam Hussein. In 2000, the economy had begun to sour, but the recession had not registered with the electorate. Independent bids at more politically fraught times had much less significance. In 1980, with both the economy and American foreign policy in crisis, the independent campaign of John Anderson took 6.6 percent of the popular vote, but Ronald Reagan still scored a landslide victory with an absolute majority, besting incumbent Jimmy Carter by almost ten points and coasting to a 489-49 win in the Electoral College.

The tumultuous 1968 campaign was marred by an assassination and a riot at the Democratic National Convention. In the general election, George Wallace's run on the "American Independent" ticket took 46 electoral votes. All of Wallace's states were in the South, where Richard Nixon would otherwise have likely beaten Hubert Humphrey. Plus, Nixon would have won the electoral college even if Humphrey had carried Wallace's states. Wallace didn't win a single county outside of the South.

Now, with multiple economic crisis and the rise of Tea Party iconoclasm, the time seems ripe for another independent bid. We have no shortage of potential candidates, and not all of them are disappointed Republican contenders. We can safely put aside also-rans Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson, two former governors who have publicly discussed the possibility but who also have failed to attract enough of a following to even qualify for the GOP debates.

Republicans are more worried about Ron Paul attempting a solo presidential bid. The Texas libertarian has a significant following, and he can raise the kind of money that can make an impact in a general election. He's unlikely to do so, though, for a couple of reasons. Paul has already said that he doesn't want to run independently, even if he doesn't support the eventual Republican nominee. Perhaps more importantly, his son Rand has a bright future in the GOP, and if dad runs independently in 2012, it might end the young Kentucky senator's prospects for a future gubernatorial or presidential run. With the elder Paul on the cusp of retirement, that would have to weigh heavily on his consideration, as would the nearly impossible task of actually beating both Barack Obama and an eventual Republican nominee.

Sarah Palin could also create problems for the GOP if she decided to really go "rogue" and run independently. Her portion of the Tea Party base would cheer such a move, especially if the Republican nominee was Mitt Romney. A Palin bid would have serious problems, though, especially in funding and organization. Perot self-funded his independent campaign from his vast wealth, but although Palin has done well with her book and speaking career, she hardly has the kind of money to self-fund. Had she wanted to run for president in this cycle, Palin could have run in the Republican primary and tried to capture the party donors and organization. Her choice to pass on a bid in the primaries indicates that she won't jump in later, especially since it would almost certainly cause the kind of split that would give Obama a second term in office.

Self-funding wouldn't be a problem for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The multi-billionaire media mogul could easily follow the Perot model and launch a national campaign. This would hardly be a Republican nightmare, however, despite Bloomberg's occasional affiliation with the GOP. There are few Republicans who would rush to the side of a notorious gun-control advocate who has pursued government mandates on salt use in restaurants and restrictions on outdoor smoking. Bloomberg's most likely impact would be on northeastern states such as New York and Connecticut, two Democratic strongholds in which Republicans wouldn't contend otherwise. Bloomberg could also draw votes away from Obama in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which would fatally weaken Obama's already slim chances of winning a second term.

Of all the independent bid possibilities, Bloomberg's is the most likely — or at least the least unlikely. Bloomberg took aim at Obama's lack of leadership in the super committee debacle last week, perhaps signaling some consideration of a run for the White House. He could build an organization nearly overnight with his own funding, and Bloomberg might gain traction among those on the center-left and traditional Democratic donors on Wall Street who have grown disenchanted with the class warfare adopted by the Democratic Party, perhaps especially after the incitement of the Occupy movement — which Bloomberg also recently and repeatedly criticized.

If we see a significant independent run for the White House next fall, it may well be the Democrats who have the most to fear from it.

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