Third-Party Candidates Aren't Rare Their Candidacies Often Change History; One Got Lincoln Elected, Helping Trigger the Civil War ... an Analysis

By Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1992 | Go to article overview
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Third-Party Candidates Aren't Rare Their Candidacies Often Change History; One Got Lincoln Elected, Helping Trigger the Civil War ... an Analysis


Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


DESPITE independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's high rankings in several recent polls, many political observers still believe his chances of winning the White House are slim.

Their analysis is based on history: Despite many attempts, no third-party or independent candidate has ever won a United States presidential election.

Third-party candidacies are far from rare in presidential elections. In almost 1 in 5 elections since George Washington's in 1789, third or even fourth candidates have played roles in determining the outcome.

The most recent third candidate was John Anderson in 1980, who was the first significant candidate to run without a party nomination. Although he garnered 20 percent in national polls at one point, he received only about 7 percent of the popular vote on election day, and got no electoral votes.

Other third candidates have been more successful, sometimes even coming in second. Theodore Roosevelt tried to recapture the White House on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. He got 30 percent of the vote and 88 electoral votes, relegating the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft, to third place and handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Like Roosevelt, several other third candidates have affected the outcome of the race. Many observers think that George Wallace, who in 1968 captured 14 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes, ensured the defeat of Democrat Hubert Humphrey and gave the election to Republican Richard Nixon.

A century earlier, in 1860, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge came in third in the popular vote, with 18 percent, but second in the electoral vote with 72; while Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas was second in the popular vote, with 29 percent, but finished fourth with only 12 electoral votes. (Tennesseean John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party captured 13 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes.) The split ensured the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, thereby triggering the Civil War.

The Perot candidacy, however, is like no other. Unlike Congressman Anderson, who came out of the Republican primaries, Perot has entered no primaries, sought no party's endorsement, and says he is prepared to advance $100 million of his own money to finance his campaign. Both the Bush and Clinton camps are convinced that even if he does not win, he will markedly affect the campaign, and are planning accordingly. Whether he will do more damage to President Bush or Governor Clinton is impossible to know at this early date.

Based on the current polling figures, however, one real possibility is that Perot could throw the election into the House of Representatives. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides that if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House elects the president from the top three candidates, with the delegation of each state having one vote, and a clear majority of states needed for election.

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