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Americans Elect to Stay with Two Options

Note: This article originally appeared on Rhodes Cook’s political blog.

About half of the presidential elections over the last half century have been impacted by a significant third party or independent candidate. This election is unlikely to be one of them.

With last month’s closure of the ambitious Americans Elect effort to find a credible centrist candidate, the likelihood of a third option on the 2012 presidential ballot that could muster 5%, 10%, even 15% of the popular vote has evaporated. Instead, the lone alternatives to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney this fall will be from the usual array of third parties — the Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties — that in recent years have together mustered about 1% to 2% of the nationwide popular vote.

Often they nominate largely unknown party loyalists to represent them. This year, these third parties are trying to make more of a splash.

The Libertarians have chosen former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who switched his allegiance after his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination failed to gain traction.

The Constitution Party has selected former Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia as its presidential nominee. Goode served six terms in Congress as a Democrat, independent and Republican.

Meanwhile, the field of Green Party contenders includes comedienne Rosanne Barr, with the party’s nominee to be selected at a mid-July convention in Baltimore.

It is likely that Johnson and Goode would take most of their votes from Romney, while the support for the left-leaning Green Party would come out of Obama’s hide. So far, the Libertarians are on the ballot in 30 states, the Green Party in 20, and the Constitution Party in 17, according to the June 1 issue of the political newsletter Ballot Access News.

But what impact any of them might have this fall is dependent on the closeness of the presidential race, especially in the swing states. The Libertarian, Constitution and Green tickets are already on the ballot in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio. But their effect will be felt on the margins, with a percentage point here or a percentage point there possibly affecting the outcome in a few states where the vote between Obama and Romney is extremely close. None of the third parties will have the money to compete with the major parties on a broad scale nor the national poll standing to win entry into the fall debates with Obama and Romney.

The situation might have been different if the well-funded Americans Elect effort had been successful. Unlike the usual process where an independent or third party candidate announces his or her candidacy and then seeks voter support, Americans Elect instead built an organizational structure, then sought to find a candidate.

In some ways, their unique approach worked well. They had money — roughly $35 million was provided by donors, many with a strong Wall Street pedigree. They had an eclectic group of supporters, ranging from former New Jersey GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. And by June 1, Americans Elect had made the ballot in 29 states, according to Ballot Access News.

But the online nominating process that the organization devised failed to produce a candidate. Big-name possibilities declined to run, while those that did were unable to generate the 10,000 votes on the party’s web site needed to be viable. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, an erstwhile GOP presidential candidate this cycle, had the most votes — slightly more than 6,000 — when Americans Elect threw in the towel in mid-May.

What happened? The shrill, dysfunctional nature of American politics that leaders of Americans Elect often criticized probably deterred a number of the most promising potential candidates. In addition, the demand for a major third party has been much lower in recent years than in the latter part of the 20th century. Then, there was a succession of significant independent or third party entries — George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Ralph Nader in 2000. All except Nader drew at least 6% of the nationwide popular vote, and his 3% share proved extremely significant in an election where Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by a mere five electoral votes.

Since then, the political environment has changed dramatically as Democrats and Republicans have engaged in a series of high-stakes elections in which differences between the two parties have been stark. The traumatic events of 9/11 had a major hand in creating this new political era, in which the major parties have fought continuously over sharply different visions of America in a dangerous world.

There has been no more talk of “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” as Wallace described the two major parties during his third party run in 1968. Rather, the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 provided “a choice, not an echo,” and 2012 will do the same. In this environment where differences between the major parties are clear, voters — for better or worse – have accepted two options as enough.