History teaches that third-party presidential candidacies evolve from a mixture of principle, peevishness, personality, pride and protest. Depending on the specific election and the individual candidate involved, the mixture of these five P's can change.
The greatest third-party candidate of this century was Theodore Roosevelt. He was a hugely successful and popular president who had served for 7 1/2 years. He was deterred from seeking another presidential term in 1908 by the looming specter of the unwritten custom that a president should not serve more than eight years in office. When he left office at age 50, it was a safe bet that the nation would hear more from energetic, restless Theodore Roosevelt.
The progressive Roosevelt had picked the massive William Howard Taft to succeed him. TR personally admired Taft but later became disenchanted with his successor's conservative tendencies. It was almost inevitable when Roosevelt broke with Taft and challenged him for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. Roosevelt won most of the few primaries that were held, but the conservatives had a lock on the rest of the convention delegates, and Taft was renominated.
Roosevelt exemplified four of the five P's. He was peeved that his own party wouldn't nominate him because he was by far the most popular Republican in the country. His limitless pride was wounded. Great principle was involved in the distinct variance in views of the progressive Roosevelt and the conservative Taft. The personality of Roosevelt was such that he could not take a back seat to another public figure. Only the protest factor was missing in the 1912 election. Roosevelt formed his own Progressive Party.
With the Republican schism, Woodrow Wilson was easily elected in 1912. The popular vote percentages and electoral votes were: Wilson 42 percent (435 electoral); Roosevelt 35 percent (88 electoral) and Taft 23 percent (8 electoral).
There never was and probably never will be a third-party candidate of such commanding presidential presence as Roosevelt. So many years afterwards, it is difficult today to imagine the captivating popularity of Theodore Roosevelt.
Ross Perot's significant showing (20 million votes, 19 percent, no electoral votes) pales in comparison to Roosevelt's. However, Perot had the one P ingredient that Roosevelt missed: protest. …