Does America really want a third-party candidate?
It is a commonly heard beef. In November we face a poor choice between a president who has disappointed his base and a challenger for whom there is no enthusiasm even from his core supporters. These are the conditions in which a third-party candidate might prosper. But so far no name has emerged. There is no Ross Perot drawling, “If voters don’t have a stomach for me, they can get one of those blow-dried guys”; no John B. Anderson saying you can only balance the budget with mirrors.
That there is little enthusiasm for Obama or Romney is evident. The New York Times described the voters’ dilemma as “like trying to decide between liver and brussels sprouts – a selection they would rather not have to make.” This antipathy toward the two champions has been growing over the years. As party discipline in the House has increased, with fewer free spirits willing to risk the opprobrium of their party’s leadership by voting their own way, so the electorate appears to have become less partisan.
Pollsters report an increase in the number who shun party labels and define themselves as “independents.” Between 2004 and 2009, Pew reports, independents, at 36 percent, became the largest voting bloc in the country, with 35 percent Democrats and just 23 percent Republicans. This does not necessarily mean, however, that voters are undecided. It may be that, with politics becoming increasingly vituperative and partisan, voters are reluctant to associate themselves with either side.
That might explain why, despite the rise in independents, polls still show that, when obliged to pick a president, voters opt for either Obama or Romney. The number of disenchanted and disillusioned, unaligned and undecided, apolitical and apathetic, remains over time rarely more than 10 percent. According to the Apr. 19 Quinnipiac survey, just 11 percent would either prefer to vote for someone else (2 percent), or wouldn’t vote (2 percent), or hadn’t decided or had some other reason for not plumping for one or the other (7 percent). Is the failure to take sides any more pronounced this election?
Digging down a little, one in four admits to being “less enthusiastic” about voting “compared to past presidential elections,” and that figure is on the uptick. But is this antipathy enough to encourage a third-party candidate? A new organization, Americans Elect, thinks so and is making it easy for a third person to get onto the ballot by making all the arrangements in all 50 states. All it needs is a candidate. The group is undertaking a search for the right person to come up on the rails in November. Its aim is to blow away the polarized two-party system and free a third-party president from the trench warfare that makes governing America impossible.
So far, so good. The first caucus, in which everyone who registers online can take part, takes place in May, when “delegates” start picking a candidate. It is early days, but this noble plan to transform American democracy has failed so far to capture the imagination: Of the 169 million registered voters, only 2.5 million have signed up.
The preliminary choice of candidates is disappointing: two has-beens – former Governor of Louisiana Charles Elson “Buddy” Roemer III and former Mayor of Salt Lake City Ross Carl “Rocky” Anderson – a Boston University economics professor, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, and a woman, human rights activist Michealene Cristini Risley. What, I hear you ask, no Ralph Nader, the eternal spoiler who made possible the dysfunctional 2000 election? He is sitting out the 2012 contest and is backing Rocky Anderson.
The write-in candidates are more plausible: New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg; Ron Paul, the former Libertarian Party candidate now posing as a Republican; Jon Huntsman, who proved too reasonable to survive the GOP beauty contest; and the only unabashed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The problem is, there is no guaranteeing that even if the massed ranks of Americans Elect pick one of the drafted candidates, he or she would deign to stand.
However, the overriding objection to voting for a third candidate, however chosen and whoever it may be, is that such a choice tilts the election in favor of the candidate you most dislike. Tea Party insurgents who vote for Paul, because he represents their libertarian views, steal votes from Romney and allow Obama to slip by. A progressive impatient with Obama’s centrism who opts for Sanders helps Romney win. As Perot made Clinton president and as Nader helped George W. Sometimes it’s better to love the one you’re with.
PHOTO: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg exits a voting booth in New York, November 3, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid