Recent media buzz suggests that disaffected #NeverTrump Republicans are seriously seeking an alternative candidate to Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee. With the chances of stopping Trump formally taking the nomination all but gone, their only hope would be to run their candidate of choice on a third-party or independent ticket.
Could they win the presidency this way? Not likely. The history of third-party nominees throws up one consistent theme: failure to win. As such, there is a perception among Republicans and Democrats that third-party nominees are merely spoilers who end up throwing the election to one of the two major party candidates.
With varying degrees of accuracy, Republicans still blame Ross Perot’s independent run in 1992 for the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House, while Democrats have never forgiven the Green Party’s 2000 nominee, Ralph Nader, for supposedly sapping precious votes they needed to defeat George W Bush.
Nevertheless, much like their movie counterparts, political spoilers often offer us a glimpse of larger developments to come, before we’ve had a chance to see it for ourselves. In particular, three third-party candidates stand out. Even in defeat, they still managed to change the course of American politics.
1: Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Party, 1912
The most successful third-party candidate was in fact a former president, Theodore Roosevelt. The best explanation for his 1912 run was probably his resentment of his own handpicked Republican successor William Howard Taft, who suffered from the fundamental flaw of not being Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt abandoned the Republicans and formed the Progressive Party. He won six states and helped oust Taft from the White House – his candidacy playing a key part in an electoral college landslide for the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson.
Despite his convincing victory, Wilson was mindful of Roosevelt’s impressive 27.4% of the vote. To keep the electorate on board, he pushed his Democrats into passing an array of legislation that the Progressives had demanded in areas such as business regulation, child labour and workers' rights.
Knowing there was little chance of victory in 1916, Roosevelt ignored the Progressive Party’s pleas to run again, choosing instead to barnstorm the country for the Republican ticket. And without the benefit of his leadership, his adopted party slowly faded into the electoral ether.
2: George Wallace, American Independent Party, 1968
Fast forward to 1968, and there was a third-party candidate running with a very different agenda. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who had infamously called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in the face of the civil rights movement, headed the ticket of the newly formed American Independent Party.
Wallace ran on a platform that called for “law and order” – a barely coded reference to race riots and rising crime rates that many white Americans blamed on black Americans – and an end to desegregation in the South.
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Running in competition with Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Wallace captured 46 electoral votes, all in the Deep South, making him the last third-party candidate to make a significant dent in the electoral college.
The victorious Nixon took note of Wallace’s triumph in the South and his strong appeal among blue-collar workers in the North, and began to cast himself as the new champion of law and order. This was the genesis of what eventually became the War on Drugs and, as revealed in a recently released interview with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, it was intentionally targeted at African-Americans.
Nixon carried this legacy forward with an overt appeal to many former Wallace voters in his famous “Silent Majority" speech in 1969, clearly a ploy to avert another strong Wallace candidacy and ensure that racially conservative white voters who’d abandoned the Democrats felt safe voting Republican. With a new right-wing base assembled after the chaos of the late 1960s, he stormed to re-election.
3: Ross Perot, Independent, 1992
The most successful third-party campaign of recent times was waged by the Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who ran as a self-funded independent in a three-way contest with Republican incumbent George HW Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. While Perot failed to win any electoral votes, his candidacy captured 18.9% of the vote – the highest since Roosevelt’s run in 1912.
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Perot had put deficit reduction, hardly the sexiest of topics, front and centre in his White House run. Previously viewed as a topic only for policy wonks, it became a true vogue issue in the 1990s, and has been in the air ever since. In their 1994 Contract with America, Republicans promised that their first piece of business if elected would be to pass a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to maintain a balanced budget.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton did everything possible to ensure he ended his two terms with a budget surplus – albeit one that didn’t last.
Like Wallace and Nixon before him, then, Perot’s quixotic run still had a far-reaching impact, even after his electoral defeat (and another much less successful run in 1996).
2016: Damage control
While it remains to be seen whether or not the Republicans' #NeverTrump contingent can find a standard bearer, it seems unlikely that such a candidate will have a similar policy impact to Roosevelt, Wallace, or Perot. Should #NeverTrump find a suitable contender, that person will almost certainly bleed votes from Trump and ensure a landslide victory for Hillary Clinton, but that’s beside the point.
Given that his career so far has taken place not only outside the party but outside electoral politics altogether, Trump is arguably effectively a third-party candidate who just happens to have hijacked the GOP brand. Whatever his chances in November, it’s almost guaranteed that his candidacy will have far-reaching implications.
Many Republicans fear that having Trump at the top of the ticket will drastically reduce their chances of holding onto the Senate and even imperil Paul Ryan’s chances of retaining the House speaker’s gavel.
Those Republicans searching for a Trump alternative hope that by having a third-party nominee such as Mitt Romney or Condoleezza Rice on the ballot, they can stop the Trump calamity from contaminating down-ballot candidates. The hope is that the presence of a “legitimate” candidate will rouse traditional Republican voters who might otherwise stay home rather than vote for Trump or Clinton, and that they will deliver their usually reliable votes in crucial Senate and House races. It’s a far-fetched strategy, but as far as the Republican mainstream is concerned there’s little to lose.
But whoever took up the challenge would become a magnet for the ire of Trump’s belligerent supporters and would infuriate those members of the Republican elite who have belatedly begun to rally around the controversial tycoon. They would have to accept that, while an outsider presidential bid might help redeem the Republican Party, it could essentially end their own electoral career.
“Third parties are like bees,” the late, great American historian, Richard Hofstadter observed in 1955. “Once they have stung, they die.” The main challenge for those pushing the third-party "solution” may well be finding a Republican who’s willing to fulfil the role of Hofstadter’s bee and commit political suicide for the sake of a greater cause.