WASHINGTON – Members of the Republican and Democratic parties can breathe a sigh of relief this year — even with the announcement by Ralph Nader (search) that he is going to run as a third-party presidential candidate, analysts say it is unlikely a spoiler will upset this year's outcome.
That's a relief for party operatives, who are expecting November to produce another razor-thin margin in the presidential election, and don't want to see a third-party candidate nibbling valuable chunks from their established bases.
Critics contend that a third-party conservative movement in 1992 and a similar liberal movement in 2000 had the opposite effect of electing Democrats and Republicans, respectively, in those elections.
With such a close race expected in November, enthusiasm for an independent movement this year appears to be muted.
“I think a lot of people who have toyed over the last 10 years with the idea of a third-party candidate are thinking differently this year,” said Chuck Muth, radio talk show host and founder of Citizen Outreach (search).
In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot (search) garnered 18 percent of mostly conservative and independent votes, resulting in the victory of Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush. In 2000, Green Party (search) activist Ralph Nader drew 2 percent of the vote in the tight race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.
“Ralph Nader tried a third-party run last time and ended up electing a Republican who is antithetical to everything he and his supporters believe in,” said Roger Hickey, a one-time supporter of Nader who runs the liberal Campaign for America’s Future (search).
Hickey said Nader's decision to make another third-party run, though not on the Green Party ticket, is likely to be met with “universal condemnation” from Democrats who “can’t stand the idea of four more years of George Bush.”
Gore beat Bush in the popular vote 49 percent to 48 percent, but lost the electoral vote. After a protracted recount and court battle, Bush was declared the winner.
But not everyone is willing to march in lockstep with either the Democratic or GOP camps, nor do they think it was Nader’s fault that Gore lost.
“I think blaming some other party is easier for Democrats than looking at what they did,” said Scott McLarty, spokesman for the Green Party. “If Mr. Nader had anything to do with Gore’s loss, it was way down on the list.”
A survey of 2000 election results show that Gore lost two states — Florida and New Hampshire — within the margin Nader captured. Other toss-up squeaker states — Wisconsin, Oregon and Pennsylvania — Gore won, even if by just a hair.
Third parties and their candidates, as underfunded and neglected by the media as they are, say they serve a purpose — to provide an alternative to the two-party system, even if only as a protest vote.
“In terms of electability, it would be very difficult under the current circumstances for a third-party candidate to win, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to run an enthusiastic and energetic campaign,” said John Hagelin, who won 83,713 votes in 2000 as the left-leaning Natural Law Party (search) candidate.
The Greens, who represent about 300,000 registered voters in 43 states, will choose their own presidential candidate during the June convention in Wisconsin. “[He or she] might not be a big media bullet candidate,” like Nader, said Green Party Spokeswoman Nancy Allen. “But it might just be a candidate who is going to help the party grow.”
On the other hand, with the loss from the Democratic race last week of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who had been a leading anti-war Democrat credited with exciting the base, the Green Party might be able to fill a hole, Allen said, noting that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), the current Democratic frontrunner, certainly isn't fitting the bill.
“There might be a lot of people who feel disenfranchised by the process,” she said. “We might be able to fill void.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, conservative and libertarian third parties pose an alternative for voters disenchanted with what they say are Bush’s big spending policies, the encroachment of civil liberties (search) and what they call a wrongly preemptive war in Iraq.
“I think the failings of the Bush administration present a huge opportunity for the Libertarian candidate — true conservatives are looking for an option,” said George Getz, spokesman for the Libertarian Party (search), which will be choosing a presidential candidate in May. “It would be a tough love message for the Republican Party.”
“I think there is certainly a perception that we may not be any worse off having a Democratic president with a Republican Congress, because at least they would act as a check and balance against each other,” said national director James Clymer.
Like Nader, Buchanan, a former television news host and Nixon administration official, was the other “celebrity” third party face on the ballot in 2000. As the nominee of the Reform Party, he spent $12 million in federal matching funds earned when Perot got more than 5 percent of the vote in 1996.
Many complain Buchanan helped to destroy the party built by Perot but then taken over by the more socially conservative Buchananites in 2000. By Election Day in 2000, the party had splintered and the message had been muddied from months of party infighting.
Since no third-party candidate had earned the 5 percent threshold in 2000, none got matching funds this year, making it even more difficult to launch a credible national campaign.
“We admit we can’t win,” said Shawn O’Hara (search), chairman of the Reform Party USA, which is trying to rebuild in the wake of the 2000 implosion.
With a populist social agenda and fiscally conservative anti-war pitch, the party is again running candidates, including O’Hara himself, who is challenging Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson (search). Ted Weill (search), a World War II veteran, is running for president.
“Right now there is a lot of unfairness. We’ve got a good old boy system that’s squeezing people out,” through difficult ballot access requirements, he said.
Third-party advocates have long complained about the lack of media coverage and being blocked from participation by the two parties in the nationally televised debates.
Muth said American voters aren’t ready or willing to support third parties who represent the far left or far right of the political spectrum, but they may be quite open to an independent movement in the future.
“I think the country wants to send a message to the two parties,” he said, “they’ve had enough of the partisan stuff.”