Ross Perot, professional third-party candidate.

Photographer: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

It's Not Time for a Third-Party Candidate

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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Politico’s Glenn Thrush took to Twitter to ask:

Might as well knock this one down now. No, the time is not ripe for a third-party challenge.

“Successful” third-party presidential candidates are consequences of weak presidents eligible for re-election.

In the last century, successful third-party (or independent; I use the terms interchangeably) runs included:

  • Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, before the polling era, running against incumbent William Howard Taft;
  • Strom Thurmond (and Henry Wallace) in 1948, running against unpopular incumbent Harry Truman;
  • George Wallace in 1968, running against Lyndon Johnson, an unpopular incumbent who dropped out of the race in March of that year;
  • John Anderson in 1980, running against unpopular incumbent Jimmy Carter;
  • And Ross Perot in 1992, running against unpopular incumbent George H.W. Bush.

There are two exceptions. In 1996, Perot bought himself a second run, although it was far less successful than his first effort. And way back in 1924, Robert La Follette ran an impressive campaign that's an exception to the rule. (Although he was running against an incumbent president, it was a probably a popular president, although we can't be sure during the pre-polling era.)

The rule isn’t a coincidence. Unpopular incumbents seeking re-election put their party's weak partisans in a tricky situation. They don’t like their party’s candidate very much, but they aren’t eager to defect to the other party. An independent candidacy cures the dilemma. That’s especially true early in a campaign, when the party challenging the incumbent president is focused on its primary battle. Note that Anderson in 1980, and Perot in 1992, each started strong and then lost ground as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton gained stature as the election approached.

All of which means that 2016 is unlikely to be fertile ground for a third-party candidate. Barack Obama isn’t particularly unpopular, especially among Democrats. But he’s not going to be on the ballot anyway, and presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton is wildly popular among Democrats. That leaves a third-party candidate very little political space. For example, a moderate Republican would have few dissatisfied Democrats to draw from.

Some reporters might be bored by Clinton’s early lock on the Democratic nomination and the possibility of a Bush-Clinton election. Boredom may fuel fantasies, but it won't generate political campaigns.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net