Third Party in 2012 Campaign?

February 28th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Will there be a serious third-party candidate in the 2012 presidential campaign?  The way things are going, it’s beginning to look like that could happen.  If it does, it will be a right-wing third party, its candidate will not win, and it may well guarantee the re-election of Barack Obama.  Let’s look at the indicators. 

The Tea Party movement isn’t really an extension of the Republican Party — in fact, tea partiers are almost as unhappy with Republicans as they are with Democrats.  Ron Paul, famously more libertarian than conventional conservative, won the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) presidential straw poll, beating out Mitt Romney.  Sarah Palin, the conservativish darling of the Tea Party, didn’t even show up at CPAC, underscoring the idea that the Tea Party movement is one thing, the conservatives and the Republican Party something else.  CPAC itself, for that matter, seemed caught between the two.

Nothing similar is happening on the left.  There’s dissatisfaction with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, some of it strong, but there’s no popular movement on the left for them to turn to, and there’s no candidate-in-waiting.  Beyond that, Democrats are more likely to grasp the fact that a leftist third-party candidacy would do little more than hurt them.

No third party has won the presidency, and there’s no reason to believe it will ever happen.  In the history of third-party candidacies, however, a few have been strong enough to win a good percentage of the popular vote and a few electoral votes.  In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt, candidate of the Progressive (Bullmoose) Party, won 27.5 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes.  In 1992 Ross Perot, candidate of the Reform Party, won 19 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.  And these are the strongest third-party showings in history.

What’s more important, however, is the possibility that a third-party candidate will siphon votes from the major party candidate on his or her side of the political spectrum.  There has been speculation that Perot pulled enough votes from Bush to ensure the election of Clinton in 1992, but it seems likely that didn’t happen.  But look at what a much weaker third-party candidate did in 2000 — it’s pretty clear that the 97,000 people in Florida who voted for Ralph Nader, candidate of the Green Party, would have mostly gone for Al Gore if Nader had not been in the race.  That would have elected Al Gore president and sent George Bush back home to Texas.

So to all those on the right — Republicans, anti-Republican conservatives, tea partiers, libertarians, and what-not — think long and hard before you wish for a right-wing third-party candidate for president in 2012.  What that might get you is four more years of the Obama Administration.

If Obama makes progress in his on-the-job training and improves between now and 2012, he’ll be a formidable candidate.  However, if the Republicans keep their wits about them and nominate a serious, capable candidate like Romney with a running mate who isn’t a goofball, it could go either way.  If the Republicans nominate someone like Sarah Palin — well, heck, bring on the third party.  The Republicans won’t win anyway, and at least the campaign will be more entertaining. 

Additional reading: 

Paul burned by Tea Party blowback, Politico
What is the history of “third parties” in the United States?, ThisNation.com
What Sarah Palin Doesn’t Know by Dorothy Rabinowitz, The Wall Street Journal
Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right by David Barstow, The New York Times
The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged by Frank Rich, The New York Times


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7 Responses to “Third Party in 2012 Campaign?”



  1. larry |

    I believe we will see more effort by the Tea Party people to clean out Washington though the electoral process. The forming of a third party would almost insure Obamas second term. The Tea Party was formed by people that object to his reckless way of spending money and trying to get everything under government control. In the process they will try to get rid of as many liberals and leftist as possible.(I hope)


  2. Lisa |

    While a 3rd party presidential candidate could emerge from the Tea Party movement, I do not think that would be any more revolutionary than a viable Democratic candidate who emerges to contest President Obama. It will be fascinating to watch regardless of where we stand politically.


  3. Brianna |

    I think it depends on how strong the Tea Party becomes. If the Tea Partiers don’t get enough strength that the Republican party isn’t willing to vote for someone with strong Tea Party sympathies in order to avoid a Democrat, that would be disastrous. But if the Tea Party becomes strong enough that the Republicans feel they have to cater to IT or lose an election, rather than the other way around, that’d be great.


  4. Tom |

    There will undoubtedly be several small parties with presidential candidates in 2012, but I don’t see any signs of a serious third-party candidate on the left. There could be one on the right, though, and Republicans should be wary of that. Democrats, of course, would probably like to see it happen.

    This whole calculation could change depending on the outcome of the off-year elections in November. If the Democrats take a severe drubbing and lose both the House and the Senate, disgusted folks on the left might try to organize some sort of alternative liberal (progressive) party. They might figure that 2010 is a harbinger of 2012, indicating that Obama might lose. In that case, they may decide that a third party wouldn’t risk much.

    Republicans, on the other hand, might be energized by good results (in their view) in 2010 and try to discourage a third party because it could weaken their chances of building on success in 2012.

    As Lisa said, in any case it’s going to be fascinating to watch.


  5. Tom |

    Brianna, you were apparently writing your comment as I was writing mine! You make an excellent point — the strength of a movement big enough to spawn a third party is likely to frighten their ideological brethren in one of the major parties enough to cause them to adopt different positions. That’s the Republicans, in this case. But a strong third-party movement can also influence the other party, too. We saw some of that from the movement behind Ross Perot.


  6. Brian Bagent |

    The GOP was kind-of, sort-of a 3rd party in 1860. But, Lincoln won the day not so much for the strength of his position but because of the fracture within the democrat party at that time. An interesting note: Lincoln won a majority of electoral votes even though he only garnered about 38% of the popular vote.

    Everybody knows what a great president Thomas Jefferson was. But in 1800, there weren’t so many that were convinced of that. He became president in spite of the fact that he didn’t win a majority of electoral votes (neither did anyone else, so the vote went to the HoR).

    It doesn’t take a majority of the vote to alter the political landscape, only a large enough plurality under the right conditions. Who knows what 2012 will bring? I certainly don’t.

    By 2012, there may well be enough angry voters, influenced by the Tea Party and the Fair Tax people, that we might actually get some substantive change. I won’t hold my breath on that, but it certainly is nice to dream once in a while.


  7. Tom |

    All us political junkies are going to have fun the next few years, what with the chances for bloodletting in November and the presidential election in 2012. A stumbling President, an oppostion party that could turn out to be suicidal (Sarah Palin?), the impact of unexpected events like 9/11, etc.

    Speaking of goofball candidates, the Republicans could beat Obama in 2012 (looked at from today’s perspective) if they remember that the decisive votes are in the middle — independents and loosely-aligned, moderate Democrats and Republicans. The far right will always vote for a Palin, but they’ll also vote for a Romney (except for the ones with irrational religious biases) in sufficient numbers with the addition of moderate voters to win the election.


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