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