Last week Ron Paul refused to rule out running as a third party candidate if he loses the Republican nomination.
That opens the door for Ron Paul to run as an independent in what could the most the biggest, most consequential third party candidacy in American history. Yes, one that is even bigger than Ross Perot’s candidacy was in the 90s.
According to a Gallup poll taken in May, 52% Americans say a third major political party is needed. Only 40% say the two current parties do an adequate job of representing the American people.
In the same vein, a CNN poll in September found that 54 percent of people have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party and 48 percent feel the same way about the Democrats.
Republicans are legitimately worried that the 74-year-old Texas Congressman with superstar appeal among young, conservative leaning Libertarians will run as a third party candidate in 2012.
Like, Ross Perot in 1992, Paul has enough appeal to siphon off significant votes from the Republican presidential candidate in key states. Perot got 19 percent of the vote and next year, in what is sure to be a close election, Paul is a good bet to cost the GOP at least five percent of the vote, enough to re-elect President Obama.
A new group called Americans Elect may provide Paul with the perfect vehicle for his third party candidacy. The group’s mission is to get a third viable, Independent presidential ticket, chosen by an Internet convention on the ballot in all 50 states. According to their website, Americans Elect has collected almost 2 million signatures.
Since his 2008 presidential campaign, Paul’s popularity has been largely driven by a community of committed Internet supporters. This accounts for his famous ‘money bombs’ – periodic fundraising drives on the Internet. The most recent money bomb brought in $2.5 million for the Paul campaign.
It would be relatively easy for Paul to mobilize his supporters in cyberspace for the Americans Elect online convention. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to mobilize them and they would just do it on their own.
The Electoral College system makes it extremely difficult for third party candidates to win states in the general election. However, on a state-by-state basis third party candidates have had real impact.
John Anderson, the former Illinois Republican Congressman, ran for president as an independent in the 1980 election. Anderson was defeated in the GOP primary that year by the more conservative Ronald Reagan. Appealing to both moderate Republicans and liberals disappointed in incumbent President Jimmy Carter, Anderson was able to win 5.7 million votes, 6.6% of the popular vote. Anderson captured enough votes to cost Reagan the state of Minnesota. Carter carried 46.5% of the vote in the North Star State that year. Reagan won 42.6% and Anderson took 8.5%. Reagan trounced Carter by carrying every state in the union except Minnesota, West Virginia and Georgia, Carter’s home state.
Paul would not be the only Texan to mount a credible Third Party presidential campaign. Perot ran an unconventional, populist campaign for President and won 18.9% of the popular vote – just under 20 million votes total. Some conservative political analysts maintain to this day that George H.W. Bush would have been re-elected if not for Perot. They point to the fact that Perot’s shares of the popular vote in several key states -- Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- was greater than Clinton’s margin of victory in those states.
That means if Perot had not been in the race, Bush might have carried enough of those swing states to win. Perot ran again in 1996 and still managed to net 8.4% of the vote.
In many Democratic precincts, Ralph Nader will always be remembered as the man who cost Al Gore the state of Florida in the 2000 presidential election. They say that Nader siphoned off enough votes from Gore put the Sunshine State in George W. Bush’s column. If Nader hadn’t been on the ballot in Florida, Gore probably would have won Florida and the Presidency. How different would the world look today if that had happened?
That history of third party candidates fits Paul’s movement perfectly. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - we are living in the age of Ron Paul.
Just as Elizabeth Warren recently claimed to have created the “intellectual foundation” for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Texas Congressman created the intellectual foundation for the Tea Party movement. His insistence on cutting federal spending, lowering taxes and shrinking the power of government is the Tea Party agenda and his talking points have shaped much of the GOP debates.
While recent CNN polling has him in third place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, no political strategists – Republicans or Democrats -- believe Paul can overtake Mitt Romney or Herman Cain. He will make the rest of the GOP contest more interesting and perhaps even more honest. But at this point the odds are strongly against Paul winning the GOP race.
And with widespread discontent with establishment politics the real question is why wouldn’t Paul – who is not running for re-election to Congress -- continue his campaign as an Independent, third party candidate for president? Remember that Paul ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988.
Rep. Paul was asked that question when he stopped by the set of Special Report with Bret Baier in Fox’s Washington DC studio for a great new segment called “Center Seat.” It marked Paul’s 71st appearance on Fox News since January. He refused to rule out the possibility. He stressed that he plans to win the Republican nomination. The most he said is that as of this moment he has “no intention” of launching a third party run.
That was a classic non-denial. As we say in the TV news business... stay tuned.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.