If former CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs decides to make an independent bid for president in 2012, he will probably find the political climate as hospitable for an insurgent run — if not more so — as it was in 1992, when Ross Perot captured a fifth of the popular vote. (It was the best showing by a third-party candidate since Bull Moose Teddy Roosevelt finished second with 27.4 percent of the vote in 1912.)
The dreary economic New Normal that is the aftermath of the Great Recession has created a huge political opening for Dobbs or Michael Bloomberg or Sarah Palin, or some other American with high visibility or deep pockets or both.
It was a slow-recovering economy and concern about big deficits that drove the Perot phenomenon. There’s a high probability both factors will be at play three years from now. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities forecasts annual budget deficits to average $1.2 trillion over the next three years. And the Federal Reserve is forecasting a so-so economic expansion that will leave unemployment over 7 percent in 2012. Overall, the nation’s economic mood might be a lot worse than it was in 1992.
Then you have a populist, anti-Wall Street sentiment that neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to capture successfully. The result is that party loyalties are frayed, with the tea party movement one manifestation. According to the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of Americans identify themselves as independents, the highest number since 1992. And they seem to be up for grabs. Barack Obama won 52 percent of the independent vote in 2008. But a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports shows Obama with a 61 percent disapproval rating among the group.
None of this means an independent would actually win. Rasmussen has Dobbs at 14 percent in a race with President Obama (42 percent) and Mitt Romney (34 percent.) With the more populist Palin replacing Romney, Dobbs gets 12 percent versus 44 percent for Obama and 37 percent for Palin. Yet without Dobbs in the race, Romney is tied with Obama and Palin trails by just three. So an independent could, at the very least, radically alter the political landscape.
And not just for the GOP. Unhappiness about an escalation in the Afghanistan war and muddled healthcare reform could create a more liberal independent challenger. Take Howard Dean, for instance. The former Vermont governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee has been ripping ObamaCare lately and says he would vote with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent socialist, against it if he were a senator. And Dean sure knows how to use the Internet to raise money, as he showed in his 2004 run for the Democratic nomination.
But here is the bottom line: If the New Normal turns out to be worse than expected, with the GOP blamed for the original collapse and Democrats for a bungled remedy, an independent might accomplish much more than just being a spoiler.