New York Times / Week in Review August 6, 2000
The Road Less Traveled to the Oval Office By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
DENVER -- Back in 1832, the Anti-Masons were growing so concerned about secret societies and ruling elites in young America that they ran a candidate for president, William Wirt of Maryland, a former United States attorney general.
Wirt failed to arouse much interest, scoring less than 8 percent of the popular vote in an election won by Andrew Jackson. But the erstwhile lawyer started a trend that has continued to this day, offering voters a third presidential option to the major political parties of the time. In every presidential election since then but one (1864), a Whig, Free Soiler, Abolitionist, Greenback or some such third party standard bearer has won votes. This year, it's Ralph Nader for the Green Party and either Patrick J. Buchanan or John Hagelin for the Reform Party, which holds its convention this week in Long Beach, Calif.
But just what role can these mavericks hope to play? The historical answer appears to be a small, but occasionally important, one. About the best any of them did was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, when he broke from the Republican Party of President William H. Taft to run as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party and won 27 percent of the popular vote. That was good enough to get Woodrow Wilson into the White House for the Democrats. Similarly, many Republicans still blame Ross Perot for siphoning off conservative voters in 1992 and helping Bill Clinton defeat President George Bush.
In general, third-party presidential candidates fare better when they have something to rail against. Martin Van Buren, of the Free Soil party, did so against slavery in 1848, as did Mr. Perot against globalism and the loss of American jobs. Both lost, but like other third-party insurgents, they played a vital role in the political system by expanding it and maybe even preserving it.
"Look at the Communist Party in the 1930's," said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a publication that follows election laws. "By running thousands of candidates for state and local offices, it served as a safety valve, directing their efforts into the system instead of bombing and rioting."
Historically, third parties have also called attention to issues ignored or avoided by the major parties of the day. The Reform Party helped to make the economy such an important issue during the 1992 election that, shortly after his victory, President Clinton held an economic summit meeting. Much the same thing appears to be at work this year. Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan, who agree on little else, have each asserted that the Republican and Democratic parties have effectively merged into a political corpocracy, in which both parties feed at the trough of big business campaign contributions and ignore the needs of ordinary citizens.
Mr. Nader, a longtime consumer advocate who won almost 700,000 votes in the 1996 election, has taken particularly derisive aim this year at the major party candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, calling them "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," although he does not specify who is which.
Of the two outsiders this year, Mr. Nader is poised to have the greater impact on the election. Gnawing at Mr. Gore from the left, where he has considerable support among environmentalists and union workers, Mr. Nader has polled as high as 10 percent in some states, which could be enough to throw one or two of them to Mr. Bush. If that should happen in California, where Mr. Nader is popular among disaffected Democrats, Mr. Gore would have little chance of winning.
The Democrats might consider sending a few million in campaign funds to Mr. Buchanan, a far-right conservative who is polling so low these days that it hurts Mr. Gore by not providing a counterbalance to Mr. Nader. As an ardent opponent of free trade, abortion rights and American military involvement abroad, Mr. Buchanan might have earned wider support if Mr. Bush had chosen a more moderate running mate than Dick Cheney. But Mr. Cheney's past positions on national defense, trade, abortion and other issues are close enough to Mr. Bush's -- and Mr. Buchanan's -- that Mr. Buchanan cannot claim to be the conservative alternative to a moderate Republican ticket.
Mr. Buchanan's one advantage over Mr. Bush, as Steven J. Rosenstone, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview, is an outsized personality that allows him to be "more vociferous, more outrageous," calling attention to issues he cares about.
That might not be enough this year. In his 1996 book, "Third Parties in America," Mr. Rosenstone wrote, "Most importantly, third parties are expressions of discontent with the major parties and their candidates."
With the nation enjoying economic prosperity and the world largely at peace, neither Mr. Nader nor Mr. Buchanan seems likely to persuade the electorate that the major party candidates cannot steer a proper course into the future.
In general, Mr. Rosenstone contends, the best third-party leaders have "magnetic personalities" and voting for them is motivated by any of three factors: "major party deterioration, attractive third-party candidates who present a viable alternative to the major party nominees and an influx of voters with no loyalty to the two major parties." Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota arguably fits this description.
While it does not appear that those factors apply enough this year to draw more more than marginal attention to Mr. Nader or Mr. Buchanan (whose opponent Mr. Hagelin has not even registered on recent national polls), there is some evidence to suggest that Americans increasingly enjoy having political options. The last two presidential elections were the first consecutive pair since 1856 and 1860 in which alternative parties have won as much as 10 percent of the popular vote. To some political experts, that portends a trend.
"I think we're getting more like the British system, where 15 to 20 percent of the votes, as a matter of course, are cast for other parties," Mr. Winger said.
"We're seeing that happen all over the world," he said. "But America remains the anomaly. We have this huge, terrifically diverse country where most people are still just voting for two parties. But I think it's changing."