History has shown repeatedly that third-party movements have their greatest influence when three basic conditions are met. First, when voters are dissatisfied with the state of the country. Second, when the two major political parties are unpopular and when the electorate is polarized. Third, when voters are experiencing the stress and dislocation of economic uncertainty. Make no mistake: We have arrived at a historic moment.
Tools. The greatest challenge facing a third-party candidate is creating a strategy that will lead to victory in November. It will depend initially on the candidate's ability to mobilize millions of Americans on his or her behalf. But there are now methods and tools to channel that discontent that did not exist in prior elections. The Internet has created a more level playing field when it comes to grass-roots organizing and fundraising.
In 1992, 19 million Americans, or almost 19 percent of the electorate, voted for Texas billionaire Ross Perot. It was the best showing by a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. I believe that had he not temporarily dropped out of the race in July and had he run his campaign differently, he would have had a chance at winning the White House. For all his faults—and they were many—Perot was able to tap into a growing sense of voter disenchantment. Today, that voter disenchantment is at least as high.
Any discussion of a third-party strategy must begin with an examination of the places in which Perot did the best—states in which he was able to exceed 20 percent of the vote. This provides a baseline of states where realistically a third-party candidate could do well enough to win. Don't forget, in a three-way race for the White House, a viable third-party candidate only needs to garner 34 percent of the vote in a state to win that state's electoral votes. Perot did his best in Maine, where he won 30 percent of the vote, narrowly edging out President Bush. He cracked 20 percent in New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. In the Far West, he won 20 to 25 percent of the vote in California, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada. He also scored between one fifth and one quarter of the vote in the Plains states, including Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and the Upper Midwest, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The challenge for any third-party candidate comes in the South, the Midwest, the border states of the old Confederacy, and the lower Northeast (New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey).
Besides the Perot voters, one must look at those places where third-party or centrist candidates have scored success in nonpresidential elections. For instance, Minnesota voters supported the 1998 long-shot bid of wrestler turned politician Jesse Ventura. Although he ran as a Republican, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger impressed California voters as a centrist, post-partisan candidate. In the 2006 election, which nationally featured an overwhelming Democratic victory, Schwarzenegger polled 56 percent of the vote. In New York City, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has taken a similar approach. Although he ran for the mayoralty as a Republican, his positions lay pretty firmly in the Democratic Party tradition, from his position on gun control to those on abortion and gay marriage.
Obviously, crafting an electoral strategy and achieving it are two very different things. Certainly, the odds are against it. It would be foolish, however, to assume that such a candidate couldn't, at the very least, have a significant and far-reaching impact. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's candidacy under the Bull Moose banner helped give rise to the progressive reforms that would come during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Although he lost in 1968, George Wallace highly influenced (many would argue negatively) the national debate on civil rights. His antigovernment rhetoric would serve as a template for a generation of conservative politicians, led initially in 1972 by Richard Nixon. In 1980, John Anderson scored only 6 percent of the vote but raised the profile of such critical national issues as fiscal restraint, environmentalism, Social Security reform, and energy independence. I have a clear and unambiguous sense that the most important person in the 1996 election was Ross Perot. The balanced-budget initiative, on which Clinton beat the Republicans, was fundamentally a repackaging of the Perot message for the mainstream.