Would a Third Party Do Better?

Running against Washington has a rich tradition

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In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot cut a deal with the American people: Get him on the ballot in 50 states and he would run for president. "If you're dead serious, then I want to see some sweat," Perot said. His frank Texas talk about the federal budget, lobbying reform, and fair trade hit home, and soon the independent was leading incumbent George H. W. Bush and newcomer Bill Clinton in the polls. He was the candidate who would "lift the hood in Washington and fix things," says Walter Stone, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis. "In the American political culture, Washington is always a symbol for what you're not."

Ending up with 18.9 percent of the vote, Perot was considered successful because he singled out issues that Washington--and his competitors from the two major parties--had forgotten about, and he reminded Americans of their importance. "Perot really promulgated a set of ideas that drew people to him," says Ronald Rapoport, a government and public policy professor at the College of William and Mary.

Stereotypes. Perot had precedent in using Washington's negative stereotype to gain support for a third party. In 1980, John Anderson, an Illinois representative who failed to clinch the GOP nomination, ran his "National Unity Campaign" on the idea that the political parties had picked the wrong person. "With all the hard choices that confront us in 1980, we do have one easy choice: the rejection of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan," Anderson said. But without a prominent issue, he ended up with just 6.6 percent of the vote. By contrast, in 1948, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond won support from four states--39 electoral votes--with a Dixiecrat campaign that berated the "anti-southern bureaucrats in Washington." While he called his main issue "states' rights," others called it racism, and Thurmond rallied southern supporters against integration.

In 1912, already having served two terms in the Oval Office, Theodore Roosevelt returned to politics as an outsider to run against his Republican successor as a member of the Progressive Party. "We and we alone, stand for the real right of the people to rule their own government," Roosevelt said of the Progressives. But even a once popular president spouting a reformist message could not win the White House. "Unless both major parties screw up, it's very hard for a third party to be successful," says Rapoport. Even if they have the right message.