When it comes to major national issues such as slavery, Prohibition, the federal deficit, and civil rights, as well as energy policy and the environment, third parties have long served as an important outlet for moving political debates forward. As we've repeatedly seen in American history, even when a third-party candidate loses, sometimes his ideas win. Political scientist Daniel Mazmanian points out that "usually after a strong showing by a minor party, at least one of the major parties shifts its position, adopting the third party's rhetoric if not the core of its programs." This may be the least obvious, but possibly most important, element of a third-party run for the White House in 2008. We tend to think of elections as zero-sum games—and usually for good reason. But when it comes to a third-party candidate, a genuine opportunity exists for an independent to dictate the issues that come to the fore, not only on the campaign trail but also after the election is over and governing begins.
The American people have become convinced that government in its current form is simply not working. We have not been able to defeat al Qaeda, catch Osama bin Laden, or develop a comprehensive plan to fight terrorism or to extricate ourselves from Iraq—much less develop a comprehensive policy for the region. Domestic problems also appear to present a daunting challenge for which we have no answers. We have no clear plan to pay for our children's education, our own healthcare or retirement, or to provide for our aging parents. We are presented with partisan rhetoric and attack politics instead. And the American people are yearning for, even demanding, an end to the divisiveness and the development of policies that produce real results, not just sound bites.
Centrist. There is a segment of the electorate that I have called the Restless and Anxious Moderates, or the rams, who I believe will decide the election. They include most of the independents and a fair number of Democrats and Republicans as well. These voters are practical and nonideological and unabashedly results-oriented. They eschew partisanship and want the parties to come together to confront the difficult challenges America is facing. Indeed, it is my argument that the rams could become the Restless and Anxious Majority if a credible third-party candidate emerges. The RAMs make up roughly 35 to 40 percent of the American electorate. RAMs are ordinary, average Americans. They go online, they watch the news, and they are interested, but they are not the political activists of the blogosphere or the evangelical right. They are centrist, middle-aged, middle-class, practical people who believe in consensus solutions to problems. When they look at politics in Washington, they are aghast.
In America's recent political history, there have been a number of times when the rams have been strongly motivated to vote for what they saw as nonpolitical alternatives. Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 was able to rally the country as a common-sense centrist who pursued moderate social policies that enhanced and protected the New Deal, moved inexorably to address civil rights, and developed the Cold War consensus promoting a strong stance against Soviet expansion. In 1964, RAMs coalesced strongly in reaction to Barry Goldwater and voted overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson. Following the divisive campaign of 1968, Richard Nixon was able to rally the rams with his own appeal to the people he came to call "the silent majority."
In 1976, a healthy percentage of RAMs saw Jimmy Carter as the alternative to the failed policies and dishonesty of the Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. Similarly, in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan was able to make the case to a solid majority of the rams that America needed limited government, a more optimistic worldview, and a stronger and more assertive foreign policy. In 1992, it was very clear that with the nation in recession and George H. W. Bush's policies having failed, the electorate was looking for change. However, with a divisive nominating process on the Democratic side and the lingering questions about Bill Clinton's personal life and draft status, there was a wide opening for third-party candidate Ross Perot. The RAMs became close to a majority of the country during that election.
The goal of the work that Mark Penn and I did with President Clinton was to get the Restless and Anxious Moderates back into the Democratic column in 1996. By talking about fiscally conservative issues in terms that Americans understood—not only balancing the budget but at the same time standing up for clean air and water, education for all, and medical care for the elderly and for the poor—Clinton spoke to commonsense values. As soon as he found his voice, the Restless and Anxious Moderates swung dramatically in his direction.
In 2000, George W. Bush won back a healthy number of the rams with his support for "compassionate conservatism" and appeared to be poised to govern in a centrist, inclusive manner. Bush was aided by Al Gore's break with Bill Clinton's electoral strategy and his advocacy of a neopopulist "people vs. the powerful" strategy, which clearly cost the vice president the 2000 election. But instead of building on his 2000 campaign rhetoric, President Bush let his coalition fray.
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.
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.
Excerpted from Declaring Independence by Douglas Schoen. Copyright © 2008 by Douglas Schoen. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.