No to Third-Party Presidential Runs

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American History, Sanders and Clinton

Now that the Democratic nomination is nearly out of reach for Bernie Sanders, a lot of his supporters are feverishly calling for him to run as an independent candidate. He’s not going to do that, because he’s smart enough to know better. But I thought I’d explain why, knowing I’m going to be ignored as some cranky old stick-in-the-mud by the young folks.

One, there have been eleven significant third-party presidential runs in American history, plus I don’t know how many obscure candidacies.  Most of the time the third-party challenger won so few votes it made no difference to the outcome. The most successful third-party challenges caused the two most popular candidates to split the majority vote, and the third most popular candidate won the election (see 1912, which was good or bad depending on how you feel about Woodrow Wilson). Note that the winner-take-all with no runoffs way we run elections makes this outcome nearly inevitable if a third-party candidate attracts significant numbers of votes.

Over the years there have been a great many third-party contests for governorships and congressional seats, and only a tiny fraction (about 2 percent) of the independent challengers have won.

Of presidential third-party candidates, the most successful were —

  • Theodore Roosevelt, 1912, Progressive Party, won 27.39 percent of the vote
  • Millard Fillmore, 1856, American Party, won 21.54 percent of the vote
  • Ross Perot, 1992, Independent, won 18.91 percent of the vote
  • Robert LaFollette, 1924, Progressive Party, won 16.62 percent of the vote
  • George Wallace, 1968, American Independent, won 13.3 percent of the vote
  • Martin van Buren, 1848, Free Soil Party, won 10.13 percent of the vote

(I left out 1860 because it was such an anomaly. The demise of the Whigs in 1854 and the split in the Democratic Party between northern and southern factions made the whole thing a chaotic mess. The chaos benefited Abraham Lincoln, who won with less than 40 percent of the vote. The remaining 60 percent of the votes were split among the two Democrats and the candidate of the Constitutional Union Party — sort of the “Third Way” of its day. Although there have been several multiple-candidate elections, I believe the 1860 election was the last one in which more than three candidates split electoral college votes. You might also remember that the 1860 election had some, um, interesting repercussions.)

See also: Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Third Party Candidate

The remaining candidates finished in the single digits. Anyway, I submit that unless we institute some kind of run-off election system, a candidate outside of the two-party system has no chance. If Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t do it, ain’t nobody gonna do it. People genuinely loved Teddy.

Might a third party presidential run, even if unsuccessful, play any role in building a lasting movement? Again, I don’t see it. It hasn’t happened yet. Note that Teddy’s Progressive Party of 1912 was an entirely different organization from Bob LaFollette’s Progressive Party of 1924; they just happen to share the same name. Ross Perot tried again in 1996 with a Reform Party, which he and others had hoped to turn into a permanent movement. It may still exist in some form, actually.  Other than the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998, they don’t appear to have accomplished anything.

So, there’s nothing in history to show us that there’s anything to gain by attempting a third-party presidential run. Such an attempt most probably would use up a lot of money and energy and accomplish nothing.  Plus, I must gently suggest that if Sanders couldn’t win enough votes to secure the nomination — however that happened — he’s not exactly a sure thing in the general, much as we might wish otherwise.

Note that Bernie Sanders himself would probably argue that he didn’t run because he wanted to be President, but because he wanted to push the country Left. Eyes on the real prize, folks.

Another option is to build a party from the ground up that might someday displace one of the other two. That’s happened once before, when the Republican Party stepped into the niche vacated by the Whigs in the 1850s. Given the current state of affairs it’s not impossible that something like that could happen again, so I wouldn’t put that option completely off the table. But it’s a long shot.

And the other option is to keep organizing and supporting progressive candidates running as Democrats, and eventually taking over the party. This is possible. But it won’t happen overnight.

However, I do hope a sustained organization can come out of this election, because I think there will be much political upheaval in the next few years that might offer opportunities if we are ready. And please note that I’m not talking about doing anything violent. But if the Democrats continue to be weakened by their internal issues and stubborn resistance to acknowledging the will of the people, opportunity might arise.

Having said all that, I know some will want to ignore me and will prepare all kinds of charts and data to show that Bernie really could win the general election as an independent candidate.  If you live long enough, eventually you learn that not everything you want to believe really is true.

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13 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 22, 2016 @1:11 pm

    No, Bernie won’t win the nomination, sadly. And he won’t run as a 3rd party candidate. He won’t even think about it.
    He knows it would tear the Democratic Party apart, and increase the chances of a Republican sociopath and loon, as POTUS.

    And neither will Trump run as a 3rd party candidate. Because he didn’t file in all states, as a ‘just in case.’ He could buy his way into an existing party that’s filed in a lot of state. But I don’t think that’ll happen either.
    He’ll whine and blather about how the nomination was stolen from him, if he doesn’t get it. That’s what losers do – make excuses.

    What might be interesting though, is McAfee running as a Libertarian for POTUS.
    Don’t scoff.
    There may be enough disillusioned Trump and/or Cruz supporters who may jump from the Republicans.
    Some might hold their noses and jump to Hillary.
    But a more natural jump, would be to vote Libertarian. Now, I’m not saying McAfee will garner more than a few percentage points – if that. But that might be enough in certain states to give the D’s a big victory.

    We live in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse says.

  2. uncledad  •  Apr 22, 2016 @3:03 pm

    A 3rd party run by Sanders would be a disaster, anyone who remembers the 2000 election knows why. Sometimes “the youngsters” just need to have some patience? If they abandon Hillary and Trump gets elected they may have another shot in 2020 with Warren, if we all haven’t died in a nuclear Holocaust!

    OT one of my all-time favorite guitar-players died yesterday (not Prince though he was pretty good just not my thing) Lonnie Mack, he was quite influential back in the 70’s. He actually played at a dive beer joint when I was at College, I was in the house band and actually got to play on stage with him! RIP Lonnie Mack!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhX1lfWZaNw

  3. freetofu  •  Apr 22, 2016 @10:49 pm

    My expectations:
    Step one: vote against Trump.
    Step two: march against Hillary.

    That’s assuming Hillary will win, which is not a safe assumption. But it’s hard for me to fault much younger people too much if they are unwilling to take step one in light of the predictable necessity for step two not long after her victory.

  4. Swami  •  Apr 23, 2016 @12:54 am

    Well, I certainly had my hopes up for Sanders.. But, I’m not going to abandon hope until hopelessness is staring me in the face. One thing I am certain of is the dilemma that’s headed my way. I had commented previously about holding my nose and voting for Hillary if she won the nomination. Now it seems That I’ve looked to closely at who Hillary is, and what she represents. That willingness to get behind her has been so greatly diminished that it’s become a serious challenge to my values and judgment to endorse her in any capacity.

  5. Doug  •  Apr 23, 2016 @8:46 am

    Swami the choice in the general is between the two major candidates or a protest vote for a symbiotic candidate. Nader was that protest candidate and he was the margin of victory for Bush. Be careful with a protest vote in a swing state.free to has the right idea. Elect hrc over any of the GOP candidates and start with heavy progressive pressure and protest before she’s even sworn in. No honeymoon. No benefit of the doubt because there is no doubt. But not Trump not Cruz Not Rubio or Ryan. Theres a huge difference between bad and worse. Just look back 8 years to refresh your memory.

  6. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 23, 2016 @12:01 pm

    Doug,
    Spot on!!!

    How are you doing?

  7. Doug  •  Apr 23, 2016 @2:09 pm

    CUND I am good. On the drive home just got into FL. It’s a relief to know what to expect and an opportunity to make firm plans.

  8. c u n d gulag  •  Apr 23, 2016 @3:31 pm

    Doug,
    Let me/us know what we can do to help you.
    I’ll do what I can, because I appreciate the courage and determination you showed!

  9. Doug  •  Apr 23, 2016 @5:03 pm

    CuND GULAG Greatly appreciate the offer. How about a cake with a file in it?

  10. maha  •  Apr 23, 2016 @5:56 pm

    Doug, I know you’ll let us know where you’re going and when. If I could send you some books or anything to help pass the time, speak up.

  11. Doug  •  Apr 23, 2016 @6:02 pm

    Thanks Barbara. Earliest is probably 2 weeks. Six weeks more likely. I may have time to read. There won’t be Internet. I can send letters and will.

  12. Joel Dan Walls  •  Apr 23, 2016 @9:51 pm

    If you live long enough, eventually you learn that not everything you want to believe really is true.

    The 25 year old in my household is still obsessively watching on the Internet Sanders speeches past and present, and posting to Facebook claims of Hillary-linked vote fraud in every jurisdiction that Sanders lost, it seems.

  13. maha  •  Apr 23, 2016 @10:34 pm

    I just wrote a long post on whether the Sanders supporters will be able to bring themselves to vote for Clinton in November. My sense of things is that some of them are so upset by how the primaries have gone that they not only will diss Clinton, they are likely to diss the Democratic Party itself ever after. What portion of Sanders supporters feel that way I do not know, of course, but it could be a substantial portion.

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