If the #neverTrump movement follows the course of American presidential politics of the past century, sometime soon, a coalition of its adherents will be naming a candidate that it will run as an alternative to Donald Trump. Whether last-minute finagling by the mainstream Republican leadership will mean a contested convention—at this point, it’s not clear how that would be even possible, short of building a wall between the Quicken Loans Arena and Donald Trump and his horde of delegates—or whether the Republican party will split and hold an alternative convention, American voters may find themselves in polling booths on November 8 having a choice among three major candidates.
There are, of course, more than two candidates for president every four years, but election returns that are affected by a third candidate for president are rare—in the past 100 years, only three presidential campaigns have seen third party candidates win Electoral College Votes: the elections of 1968, 1948, and 1924. In two of these elections, the major issue that drove voters to select the third party candidate was that of race. White Americans drove the campaigns that were built around white resentment toward major party candidates that they saw as too willing to share power with African Americans and other ethnic groups.
Many Democrats, incensed by the Supreme Court decision in 2000 to award the presidency to George W. Bush, blamed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s defeat. Nader won fewer than three million votes nationwide; his support was so diluted that Nader took not one of the 538 Electoral College Votes (EV). As the American public was reminded, it didn’t matter that Gore captured the popular vote that year: after stopping the vote recount in Florida, the SCOTUS gave Bush enough EV to put him in the White House.
For all the skits that Ross H. Perot inspired on Saturday Night Live in 1992, the first time he ran as an Independent, Perot managed to capture 19 percent—nearly 20,000,000 votes--in the contest between the incumbent George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1996, Perot, this time running as the “Reform” candidate, took about 8,000,000 votes. In both cases, despite these percentages, Perot failed to notch a single EV. That’s correct: Perot won 20% of the popular vote in 1992, and didn’t make the Electoral College scoreboard.
In 1980, John Anderson, the “liberal” Republican who ran as an Independent in an effort to disrupt the Reagan/Carter contest, finished with nearly seven percent of the popular vote. And again. His EV? Goose Egg.
Voters looking for “inspiration” in the ability of a viable third party candidate may want to keep on going when they see which candidate did make a dent in EV votes. George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, who in his inaugural address in January, 1963, declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” ran against Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. At the end of election night, the “American Independent” leader took in about 10 million votes, which represented 13.5 percent of the total electorate. But, Wallace won the majorities in five states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas, which gave him a total of 46 votes in the Electoral College. Political historians generally refer to the people who voted for Wallace as white racists, but in the “Deep South” states in 1968, white racists were in the majority.
Wallace ran as the candidate who represented angry white men and white women who did not want to live in a world where African Americans were entitled to vote without legal restrictions. They flailed against giving up a system of privilege in which the accident of being born white entitled one to feel naturally superior to anyone—even a genius, a professor, a medical doctor—who had been born black. Wallace stoked that resentment and took the voting majorities in five of the states where white people felt most put-out by the encroachment of civil rights.
Wallace was the first candidate in twenty years to win EV. If Wallace was "deja vu all over again" that was because going back to what motivated voters in 1948, the third party candidate had put the same issues into play. In 1948, after a tumultuous convention in which the Democratic incumbent Harry Truman pushed for a civil rights plank in the party platform, Southern Democrats walked out of the convention. Calling themselves the “States’ Rights Democratic” party, ('Dixiecrats' as the press named them) they chose South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond (who even in 1948 was 46-years old) as their candidate. Thurmond was incensed by Truman’s efforts to push for integration. Running for president in 1948, Thurmond said that ''on the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line.'' And, he went on, ''all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.''
The first candidate to win any EV in the past 100 years is the man who was known as “Fighting Bob:” Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette, who in 1924, took nearly 17 percent of the total votes, and was awarded 13 EV for winning his home state in the general election. Unlike Thurmond and Wallace, however, LaFollette ran as the Progressive candidate, although the Progressive party was not nearly as progressive as the Socialist party, the party of Eugene V. Debs, which had racked up voting percentages in the elections between 1900 and Debs’ last campaign in 1920, which he ran from prison. Debs had been imprisoned for his opposition to the 1917 Espionage Act—one of the templates for the 2001 PATRIOT Act.
The 74-year old LaFollette was seen by many as a traitor. He had strongly opposed America’s entry into World War I. While many who spoke publicly against the War—people like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Eugene Debs—had been jailed for violations of laws that had been passed specifically to stifle dissent against the War—LaFollette escaped jail only because he was a U.S. Senator at the time. His opposition was spoken on the floor of the Senate, and his Senate political enemies made certain that he was vilified in the press and in the minds of the American public for failing to see any purpose to joining the slaughter on the European continent.
In 1924, LaFollette wanted to form a progressive wing of the Republican party, but more radical elements within the labor-famer-progressive coalition pushed through a platform that LaFollette saw as controlled by Communist interests. He refused to accept the nomination, and along with a new coalition of labor unions and especially German-Americans, still reeling from their labeling as traitors during the previous war, LaFollette formed a Progressive party. He ran against Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge and Democratic nominee John W. Davis.
While LaFollette won outright the state of Wisconsin, he finished second in several Western states. In the past 100 years, his is the only third party candidacy to win any EV north of the Mason-Dixon line.
What is unique about Donald Trump’s capturing of the Republican nomination is that many of his views—especially with its emphasis on xenophobia and its adherence to “America First”—line up with the “fringe” views that are more often associated with third party candidates. If a successful third party candidate is going to arise from within the Republican party to challenge Trump, it is first going to have to convince the party faithful that it is Trump who represents the candidacy outside the mainstream. Establishment Republicans, running as the alternative to Trump, are going to have to work the idea that it is Donald Trump who represents the dangerous riptide that causes even the strongest swimmers to drown, while it is they—the breakaway party—that is the only hope for reaching shore safely.