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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Third Party Called Likely For 2012 Presidential Race

The noted Democratic pollsters Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen predict in this Wall Street Journal op-ed, to be published Thursday, the rise of a serious third-party presidential bid in 2012.

As a veteran election lawyer who started his political career planning petition drives and legal compliance for  independent Ross Perot's presidential campaign in 1992, I know first hand the practical obstacles to even getting on the ballot in all 50 states, much less to running a serious campaign that successfully attracts measurable support.

The common objection to a third party candidate is the refrain that any vote for him (or her) is a "wasted vote."  However, Electoral College mechanics change the dynamic.  The candidate may not gain electoral votes -- he or she must win states outright, with some exceptions -- but a strong third-place showing can tip the race in some states and certainly accumulate overall popular vote totals that will be impressive.  Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 but no electoral votes.  However, Perot nearly finished second in some states where incumbent George H.W. Bush ran weakly.

Unlike a conventional campaign measured on straight popular vote, the Electoral College means that a presidential campaign is really 51 distinct campaigns.  (Remember the District of Columbia.)   Many states which are clearly red or blue are not contested with the outcome considered safely beyond doubt.  In such states, a protest vote gains quick appeal from the disgusted segment of the electorate.  Moreover, the presumptive winning side will encourage (however covertly) such a protest for the dual reasons of ensuring victory and capturing the state's electoral votes, and for the long-term strategy of weakening the opposition party in the state in order to enhance victory prospects in future races.  Hence, a credible protest candidate does have a serious opportunity to do very well at the polls; a showing in the low teens is not out of the question for a credible candidate.  (Heck, even a nut can approach ten percent. See the case of the single-issue fringe 9/11 conspiracy theorist Jeff Boss, who challenged then-incumbent Governor Jon Corzine in the Democratic Party primary and got eight percent of the vote.)

Remember, though, that a weakened incumbent President Obama and a possibly less-than-inspiring Republican nominee may give much of the electorate a longing for a Someone Else.   Into such a charisma void a serious challenger may enter and emerge with a serious chance of gaining a plurality of votes in a state and taking its electoral votes.   There is precedent for this; just see the last-week emergence in November 1998 of former wrestler turned Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (original name: James Janos), who beat two decidely lukewarm and uninspiring major-party candidates.

Eric Dixon is a New York election lawyer and veteran of approximately two dozen political campaigns.  Mr. Dixon handles crisis management and litigation stress management for clients. 

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