WASHINGTON, January 28, 2016 — If you think that Donald Trump’s decision to skip the GOP debate in Iowa is the biggest political news of the week, you’re wrong. According to the New York Times, Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City is seriously pondering entering the presidential sweepstakes of 2016.
Third party runs for the presidency have typically crashed and burned on election day, but they can also have an impact on election results. Consider the result of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot’s entrance into the 1992 race. Perot finished in third place, receiving close to 19 percent of the popular vote. That was the most votes won by a third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose third-party run in 1912.
It was enough to end President George H.W. Bush’s aspirations for a second term.
In 1980, Republican Congressman John B. Anderson ran as an independent and received nearly 6 million votes and 6.5 percent of the popular vote. This alone did not derail the second term aspirations of Jimmy Carter, who lost to Ronald Reagan in the popular vote 50.8 to Carter’s 40.1 percent, but it was enough to make the race a bit closer.
Many Democrats bitterly accused Ralph Nader of tilting the 2000 election to George W. Bush, and George Wallace nearly denied Richard Nixon the White House, winning 10 million popular votes and 46 electoral votes, with long-term repercussions to GOP campaigns in the South.
In presidential politics, close doesn’t win elections, but third-party candidates can tip a close balance, throw campaigns into chaos and throw elections into doubt. In the age of social media, candidacies of billionaires like Bloomberg on the left and Trump on the right can destabilize the scales and even dominate the news, as Trump has.
Hillary Clinton is suffering from self-inflicted wounds that are festering with the ongoing FBI investigation into her home email server and the classified documents that were housed on it. Her lackluster, highly programmed campaign style and doubts about her honesty add poison to her wounds. Bloomberg’s potential entrance could tip the balance from a weakened Hillary to the Republican nominee.
Why do voters turn to third-party candidates, who historically have little chance of getting enough votes even to come in second?
Independent runs may be about influencing the major party candidates or serving as outlets for popular frustration rather than about winning. Anderson ran with the idea that his moderate views and the general public’s distrust and frustration with President Carter would give him the edge. It did not.
American voters and the American electoral process have a locked-in, two-party political mindset. Americans learn early on in their high school civics classes about the importance of a two-party system that promotes “balance” in our system of government. This is reinforced over and over by the two dominant political parties, the media and the political pundits.
This two-party mindset may create an “us against them” political battleground that voters can easily embrace. It is nice and neat, and no other political parties need apply.
Future voters in our high school classrooms learn about other nations like Italy and Israel that have numerous political parties that often produce unpredictable and unstable governments. For Americans, multiple political parties represent instability and unrest.
Students are taught that a two-party system is good for America. When they grow up to vote, they focus on one side or the other, not on the many possibilities in between.
Of course, the other political ingredient that is part of the menu of presidential politics that two-party advocates cannot plan for is the streak of populism which raises its head from time to time. This unplanned dynamic often raises its head when growing discontent in America is present.
Examine the rise of the Tea Party political phenomena in 2010 which unleashed a streak of populism across the nation and broke the back of the democrat’s hold on the House of Representatives. While the Tea Party did not begin a third party, it certainly certified its hold and cemented its influence on the direction of the republican party.
In 2016, all the rules of third-party presidential sweepstakes may be rewritten with growing populist forces appearing on the GOP side with Donald Trump’s bid and on the democrat’s side with Bernie Sanders.
So, let’s see what happens when voters across America make their selection on Election Day. Perhaps past may not be prologue Two billionaires may end up charting a new course for a new president that is yet unseen. Stay tuned.