Declaring Independence: Why Campaign Consultant Douglas Schoen Says It's Time for a Third Party

Why voter discontent may set the stage for an independent run

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Schwarzenegger has governed as an independent.

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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.

I believe a third-party candidate in 2008 could have the same effect. In America, we've never countenanced the notion of a coalition government, but a third-party candidate could force such a situation, positioning him- or herself as a kingmaker. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, an independent candidate could use his or her electoral votes either to force attention to specific issues or to bargain with each of the two major parties for a role in the government. In 2004, an independent who carried Ohio, New York, or Florida would have prevented either major candidate from winning a majority.

Deep pockets. There are a number of people who are obvious candidates, but the one thing that we have seen in America, from Anderson, Perot, Howard Dean, and now Barack Obama and Fred Thompson, is that credible candidates become known very quickly. They can raise money and build support using the media and the Internet in ways we never thought possible. Still, the challenges and costs in making Americans aware of a third-party candidate in a national race are enormous. Clearly, money is a key consideration. In some ways, it is easier to raise money than ever before, but of course a candidate with deep pockets starts in a much more advantageous position.

The most obvious name for the head of a third-party ticket would be that of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (a former client of mine). Bloomberg has deep pockets: He has spent over $150 million on two races for mayor. He has reasonably strong name recognition, both as a hugely successful entrepreneur and as a very effective and popular mayor of New York. I have spoken to Bloomberg personally about the '08 race, and he made clear to me as he had to others that, as of the summer and fall of 2007, he was not planning a presidential campaign—though he dangled enough hints that it was clear his denial was not absolute and unequivocal. Sources directly familiar with Bloomberg's thinking say that he will indeed reconsider his options once both parties' nominees become clear. Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's top political aide, said that he would wait until March 5, after the Texas primary, when the nominees from the two major parties presumably will have been chosen, to assess the situation once and for all.

Others who might be considered include prominent business people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, and even former newscaster Tom Brokaw or current CNN commentator Lou Dobbs. At first glance it may not seem politically likely that any of them would run, but after the polling I have done and with 30 years of experience, I can say that a credible businessman, running on a platform of change, would be able to instantly gain political credibility and political support. The system is more open now than at any other time in history. Unhappiness with politics is at a record high, while the technology is in place to allow a third-party candidate to make his voice heard and to get on the ballot. At the very least, an independent could have a fundamental impact on the policy agenda and change for the better the politics of our country and the politics of Washington.