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Why The Force Isn't With The `Third Force'

Washington Outlook


Remember the "Third Force"? A populist storm fueled two years ago by voter disgust with Washington was going to howl through the land in '96, buffeting pols and uprooting the two-party system. Well, the raging hurricane has been downgraded to a tropical depression.

Contempt for the political process hasn't ebbed, and neither President Clinton nor Republican rival Bob Dole inspires passionate support. Even so, voters can't seem to break their habit of voting for the major parties--and probably won't anytime soon.

Exhibit A: Ross Perot. The Reform Party nominee, a genuine threat to the status quo four years ago, garners a mere 5% to 8% in polls this time around. Concluding that the Texas billionaire has no real chance of affecting the election, a bipartisan commission proposed on Sept. 17 to bar him from the fall debates. Perot forces, charging a two-party conspiracy against the Texan, threaten a legal challenge. The Perot campaign also insists its man will start moving up in the polls, as he did four years ago. But exclusion from the debates would likely consign him to a fringe candidacy.

`QUIRKY.' Political forecasters who were bracing for the Third Force say it lost its punch this year because the wrong candidate is running at the wrong time. Perot's personality has turned off two-thirds mf the voters, according to recent polls. "In the eyes of a lot of people, he's at best quirky, and at worst crazy," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. And the healthy economy has eased voter discontent. "When you've had four straight years of relative prosperity, it's hard to get people angry at the incumbent," observes Gordon S. Black, an independent pollster who worked for Perot in 1992.

There's also a political axiom that hampers independent challengers: Americans would rather hold their noses and choose the lesser of two evils than cast principled votes for someone who can't win. Ask former Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm, who challenged Perot for the Reform Party nod. "We know the air goes out of all third party movements as they approach the elections," he concedes.

And independents have trouble keeping potent issues as their own. After Perot captured 19% of the vote in '92--the best showing by an independent in 80 years--President Clinton and the GOP embraced Perot's top priority: deficit reduction. Today, the deficit as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest since 1974. Alas, Perot's issues this year--a campaign finance overhaul and entitlement reform--lack the sizzle of budget-balancing. "Throughout history, the two major parties have cannibalized ideas that sparked third-party challenges," says Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker.

So the Democrats and Republicans can breathe easy, right? Not quite. Support for the two parties remains extremely weak. In a Sept. 5-8 Harris Poll of 690 likely voters, 48% said the country needs a new national party. And party loyalty is at a record low, with nearly 40% of voters calling themselves independents, according to the Pew Center. Indeed, given the level of discontent with the status quo, a charismatic candidate such as retired General Colin L. Powell might have created a three-way race had he not declared himself a Republican, says Kohut.

Although Perot may fade, his legacy--getting his Reform Party on every state ballot--may not. "A new party structure that survives Perot would be an historical precedent," says Cornell University government professor Theodore J. Lowi.

A grass roots operation won't be enough, however. Without an appealing candidate, compelling cause, and reeling economy, the Third Force will remain a potent threat--but one that never quite reaches landfall.By Owen UllmannReturn to top

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