Talk of a late third party presidential candidate keeps popping up among D.C. political pros who look at reams of polling data and other evidence and see an electorate anxious to cast a pox on both political houses in the form of an independent presidential bid.
The public is “sending a message,” veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart said Thursday morning at a National Journal/United Technologies policy breakfast, “and they’re sending it as loudly and clearly as possible. And the message is: ‘We hate you.’” He was talking about his own polling as well as a new National Journal poll which showed that 80 percent of Americans think that Congress is bickering more than usual, 46 percent think that it is accomplishing less than it has in the past, and 64 percent have either “not much” or “no confidence” in government as a whole.
That opens the doors for an independent, Hart and others agreed. “The environment [is] very ripe for independent candidates,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “Somebody has to be the ‘eat your vegetables’ candidate, and I don’t see Republicans or Democrats doing that.”
Hart likened the political mood in the country to 1948, 1968, and 1992—all years with strong independent presidential bids. “It is ripe for an independent candidate,” he said. “If there’s an independent candidate in this race, it will make a huge difference.” He argued that an independent would draw from the kind of voters who looked to Ross Perot and to Ron Paul—“it’ll come from the West, it’ll come from the rural areas, etc.”
He added that given how solid President Obama’s base is, the support for any third party candidate would “come out of the Republican hide.” Hart suggested former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as a strong possible independent candidate.
But while Sara Fagen, former political director in the George W. Bush White House, said that the year was ripe for an independent bid, she doubted whether it’s possible at this point. “This year would have been the year,” she said but it is now too late in the process to do the leg work of getting on ballots and organizing to get enough support to get into the presidential debates.
This would no doubt have been true in past years but there are a couple of mitigating factors which could open the door for a late breaking independent bid from Walker or someone else. First there’s Americans Elect, the nonpartisan group trying to put a third party candidate on the ballot in all 50 states. As of last week, they had gotten onto 24 ballots and expect to make all 50. They are in essence sparing someone like Walker or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg from having to do the groundwork that would have barred them from running in previous years.
Social media and cable news have also changed the playing field, Simmons pointed out. “Those two factors I think make a rhetorical candidacy even more impactful,” he said. “So maybe they don’t make every ballot in every state, but they push the debate in a way that forces the other two parties to have to react to it.”