By Oscar Winberg
The U.S. presidential campaign is already in full swing, even though it is roughly five months before the first ballot will be cast in the primaries and caucuses that select the major party nominees, and over a year until the people will actually elect the 45th president. This summer much of the coverage has been reserved for a candidate more familiar from reality television than electoral politics; Donald Trump. Polls show Trump leading the considerable line-up of candidates the Republican Party presents, and on account of the polls – and to the despair of political scientists – the media is considering him something of a favorite. If one disregards the polls, or looks beyond the main numbers to focus on favorability ratings and other more relevant information that does not correlate so closely with name recognition and media coverage, there is really nothing that points to Trump having any serious chance of capturing the Republican nomination. Historians might come up with spectacular political surprises from yesteryear, but the influential political science monograph The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (2008) makes it clear that Trump will not find any encouragement in recent political history.
Instead, Trump’s influence in 2016 might come as a third party candidate. The possibility has been given much attention, especially after he refused to pledge his support to the eventual Republican nominee at the first G.O.P debate in August. In early September, however, Trump signed a pledge to not run as an independent. The pledge is in essence no more than a promise and hardly enforceable. Furthermore, breaking the pledge would not deter the core of Trump supporters, which is why it would be far too early to rule out a third party run. Historically, significant third party candidates in U.S. presidential elections are rare, yet far from unheard of. In fact, since WWII six out of 17 elections have featured what I would call significant third party challengers (that is candidates with a share of the national popular vote exceeding 2 %, regardless of electoral votes). Politics in the U.S. is built on a two-party system where two candidates face off in a winner-takes-all election. The Republicans and Democrats, however, are loose coalitions, rather than the policy-setting, ideological entities of Western Europe and Canada. This helps explain how Trump, like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, has gained a position in the 2016 race in the first place, despite no previous political experience or work within the Republican Party.
Since political parties are more election-winning machines than policy organizations, independent presidential campaigns usually form ad hoc parties around the candidate, primarily for bureaucratic reasons. In modern U.S. politics it is a considerable task for any candidate to mount a third party candidacy; while the major party candidates appear with their name on the ballots more or less automatically, third party candidates must meet a range of different criteria to even get on the ballot. Ralph Nader, often viewed as the spoiler for Al Gore in 2000, did not, for instance, appear on the ballot in more than 43 states (plus Washington DC). Furthermore, debate participation is, since 2000, contingent on not only public opinion but also ballot access. Even back in the days when there were no clearly defined criteria for appearing on the debate stage, incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a televised debate with independent candidate John B. Anderson in 1980. The U.S. electoral system of winner-takes-all makes third party campaigns even harder. To win electoral votes a candidate must win a plurality of the votes in that given state; which is why no third party candidate since George Wallace in 1968 has won a single electoral vote. When no proportional representation exists the risks associated with voting for your favorite, who may be an unlikely winner, are considerably higher. This explains the bitterness felt by many Democrats towards the liberals, normally loyal Democratic voters, who went with Ralph Nader over Al Gore in 2000 despite the fact that he had no chance of winning; according to them Nader’s voters threw away their votes and cost Gore the presidency.
There are, historically speaking, two distinct types of significant third party candidates: from within the party and from the outside. The candidate can be an established major party politician, dissatisfied with the party nominee and thus making a run for the White House from outside the party, as was the case with John B. Anderson in 1980. Alternatively, the candidate is not an established politician nor seeking the nomination of either major party but from the outset looking for a third party campaign, as Ross Perot did in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. Characteristically those from within a major party have been the strongest, as demonstrated by George Wallace’s 1968 run and Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat challenge, which won 5 and 4 states respectively. Most famously, the Republican Party split, at the convention no less, in 1908 when incumbent William Howard Taft was challenged by his predecessor in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt. But an outright split is the rarest of political phenomenon. Both Wallace and Thurmond represented regional splits within the Democratic Party where the segregationist South revolted against the national party – and both candidates continued within the Democratic Party after their unsuccessful presidential runs. The 1980 presidential campaign of John B. Anderson is the only modern example of an unsuccessful primary candidate deciding to mount a third party run in opposition of the eventual nominee. Anderson, a long-serving Representative, made a long shot bid for the Republican nomination as a moderate, so called Rockefeller Republican (todays RINOs or Main Street Republican). Among the reasons for Anderson’s independent run was seemingly weak major party candidates, and perhaps most importantly the fact that Anderson’s popularity nationally far exceeded that within the Republican Party. Trump enjoys neither of these circumstances.
While some speak of third party candidacies built around a person, it is difficult to identify a campaign– with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt’s in 1908 –that emerged from loyalty to the person rather than interest in the issue. Certainly the two most successful modern third party candidates from outside any major party propelled their campaigns to significance by the focus on issues rather than personality. Ralph Nader was already a liberal icon by the time he ran for president in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, reaching 2.7 % of the national popular vote in 2000 and potentially handing Florida and thus the White House to George W. Bush. But Nader’s campaign, while hardly successful, focused on issues far more than Nader as a person. The most successful third party candidate measured in percentage of the popular vote, and the candidate most frequently mentioned as an example for a potential Trump run, is Ross Perot. A Texan businessman and multibillionaire who financed his own campaign in 1992, Perot may appear to be a historical precedent for Trump. In fact, this is a real worry among Republicans who to this day believe that Perot delivered eight years of Clinton – and fear Trump might do literally the exact same thing.
Being compared to Ross Perot is appealing for Trump personally, as it highlights the weight he might have in the election with an independent run, and for political pundits, because of some interesting, yet superficial, similarities. Both in 1992 and 2016 the narrative could be built around a Bush and a Clinton set for a duel with an unpredictable billionaire disrupting the race with an independent run. There is, however, real reason to question the usefulness of the comparison. The first mistake in viewing Trump as a 2016 version of Perot is the one Trump most eagerly emphasizes: personal wealth. In the modern political climate national campaigns require considerable funds, and while major parties have established channels of fundraising third party candidates struggle to raise the necessary money. To be able to mount a serious challenge a third party candidate must, in practice, be able to personally bankroll much of the campaign. While Trump claims to be really rich it might be good to note how he compares to the last billionaire making a third party run for the presidency. Comparing their personal fortunes, and correcting for inflation, Perot and Trump match up pretty neatly – with around $4 billion (my numbers are taken from Forbes). The difference can be found in the larger context: Perot was ranked the 19th richest American in 1992, while Trump placed 136th in 2014. Furthermore, Perot was worth around a third of the top-ranked Bill Gates in 1992, whereas Trump’s wealth only comes to 5% of the fortune of the richest American—still Gates—in 2014. Perot ran an extremely stringy self-financed campaign of $68 million, refusing to spend on necessary advertising and opinion research. When adjusting for inflation and accounting for increased campaign spending, Trump would have to spend at least $300 million to stay relevant, in other words around 8 % of his fortune. Such spending is still a drop in the Super PAC ocean, when Charles and David Koch have pledged to raise close to a billion dollars for the Republican nominee.
More importantly, it must be noted that Perot ran as the champion of one very salient issue – eliminating budget deficits. Trump has thus far been running on his personality; his policies are not in fact unique within the Republican field, rather his style is. More broadly, history tells us that electoral votes (i.e. winning states) are probably beyond the reach of third party candidates without strong regional ties, such as Southerner George Wallace in 1968. Trump has no such regional appeal. History also tells us the candidates with broadest popular appeal have been moderate ones, for example John Anderson in 1980, or Perot in 1992. Third party candidates too extreme for a major party, for instance Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan in 2000, barely register. On the other hand, even though both of those candidates had long careers in the public eye behind them, Trump enjoys considerably higher name-recognition than either.
Still, no significant third party candidacy has been built on personality as opposed to policy; from Thurmond and Wallace to Anderson and Perot, candidates have built their run on prominent issues with importance for the electorate. Trump has yet to offer this. Perhaps the most important legacy of half a century of third party candidacies remains the view of a vote for an independent as a vote thrown away. This is the historical precedent Trump must grapple with.
Oscar Winberg is a PhD candidate in History at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. He also hosts the monthly Campaign Context podcast, which provides historical context and insight into the 2016 U.S. elections. Follow him on twitter @WinbergOscar.