Jon Huntsman may be talking to supporters about a presidential run as an independent.

Catch of the Day: Ignore Third-Party Distractions

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Catch goes to Brendan Nyhan, who uses rumors of a Jon Huntsman third-party presidential run to point out that the mediaalways hypes such candidates, even though third-party or independent contenders can't win.

Speculation about these candidacies is one of the go-to topics for many reporters and pundits during the (presidential) political off-season, and there are always potential candidates or organizations happy to supply the fuel. This illustrates one of the important aspects of the “invisible primary,” when party actors begin to compete and coordinate over the nomination: it isn’t very visible! That makes it hard to report on, both because information is difficult to obtain and because there are few obvious news “hooks” to make stories timely. Third-party speculation helps fill the void.

Nyhan goes into the details about the institutional barriers to third-party success. If you think that a third-party candidate is likely to win in 2016 or any other election, think again.

I would add that 2016 isn’t a promising year for even the kind of third-party “success” that is generally possible -- the kind enjoyed by Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, John Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, and two candidates in 1948. Toss in Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, and even Robert La Follette in 1924. All of those candidacies succeeded to the extent that they either won at least one state, or a decent share of the popular vote, or both. In the case of the recent candidacies for which we have polling data (Perot and Anderson), we also know that they polled higher before the crushing logic of first-past-the-post elections and the lack of institutional support produced a late fade.

What those third-party candidacies had in common -- except for Perot’s echo campaign in 1996 and Wallace’s in 1968 -- was that they they were challenges to presidents who were seeking a second term and were unpopular in most cases. And the two exceptions don’t help the case for 2016. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson was widely assumed to be seeking another term until he suddenly announced his retirement in late March, with the dynamics of the political year already in place. And Perot's run was a repeat (and less successful) performance by a candidate who had the money to finance it.

There is a straightforward reason that significant third-party runs appear to be a consequence of unpopular presidents seeking re-election. The president appears vulnerable, and the out-party often doesn’t seem to have its act together, or have presidential “stature.” Many voters who usually support the president's party are open to change, but not prepared (at least at first) to endorse the other party’s candidate. Many in the out-party take time to be sold on their candidate, especially if the nomination has been difficult. That opens a window for what looks like a serious challenge that could appeal to people in both parties. It’s an illusion; most voters eventually go back to their parties.

So don’t expect a serious third-party or independent (I use the terms interchangeably, even though they are a bit different) candidate in 2016. But I do expect the media to bite on the “story” anyway.

Nice catch!

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net