How Would a Third-Party Candidate Fare in 2012?

If the Obama's approval keeps sinking and Republicans nominate a polarizing figure, the time could be right for an independent White House bid
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John Huntsman has been distancing himself from other Republicans. Is he eyeing a third-party run? Image credit: Reuters

In the dog days of summer and in the aftermath of the unusual earthquake that hit the Washington area and other parts of the East Coast, maybe it's time to play a little parlor game related to next year's presidential election and a major disruption that just might occur. I am talking about the increasing probability that a serious independent third-party run might just occur. And by the manner in which former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is conducting himself this week in high-profile criticizing of his own party, he and his campaign might also be eyeing this probability.

Let me set the table on this, and see what it just might tell us. Today, President Obama's Gallup approval ratings are at an all-time low (38 percent). For the last two weeks, his approval rating has basically been stuck around 40 percent. For the last 60 years, an incumbent president running for reelection has basically received in national vote share the same percentage as his Gallup rating going into Election Day. If a president's approval was 50 percent or more, it didn't matter who his opponent was, he won. And if a president's approval was below 45 percent, it didn't matter who his opponent was -- he lost.

We have not had a president in the inbetween numbers in the modern era, so we don't know that territory. If the election were held today in a two-person race, Obama would lose his reelection bid. In addition, if his approval rating drops much further, he could easily face opposition within his own party.

If Republicans nominate an extremely polarizing figure who has a difficult time getting independent votes (especially in the crucial Midwest states) or one who instills no passion at all in the conservative base, and if Obama's approval numbers stay low, then we basically would have two unelectable candidates facing each other in the general election.

Further, in an analysis I did a few years back on the composition of a general-election electorate, it signals an opening for a more-moderate independent candidate as well. The Republican Party base--for smaller government, low taxes, and socially conservative--represents about 26 percent of all voters. The Democratic Party's bloc--for larger government, higher taxes, and more socially progressive--represents about 23 percent of all voters. Thus, 51 percent of the electorate is a mishmash of independents, not ideological members of either political party.

I have created the scenario for an opening for a third-party run. So what are the likely outcomes if that happens (and as each day passes, it becomes increasingly possible that an independent could run) in the general election?

  1. Based on the allocation of votes around the country; the Electoral College, which makes third-party success very hard; and the history of failed third-party candidacies, it is unlikely that an independent could actually be elected president. The deck is just stacked in favor of the two major parties, and the inherent electoral structure makes it incredibly difficult for anyone else to win.

  2. The third-party candidate draws a large minority percentage of the vote, but doesn't win any states (and thus, electoral votes). This scenario likely would reelect Obama, who then would just need 38 percent of the vote nationally to succeed. He could win enough states with a vote percentage in the 40's to gather a majority of electoral votes. The Republican base would be below this threshold; and without enough votes to back the GOP nominee to kick Obama out of office because of the third-party siphon effect, Republicans would watch as a president without a majority of the votes gets reelected. This has happened a number of times in American political history. 

  3. The third-party candidate is able to win enough states (and hence electoral votes), to actually block both major-party candidates from winning the required 270 electoral votes. The election would then be thrown into the House of Representatives, which -- when looking at how the voting works -- would likely elects the Republican candidate. Why? Because each state is given one vote in this eventuality, and the congressional delegation from each state gets to decide how that one vote is cast. So Alaska gets the same power as California! Today, Republicans almost always win more states in national elections, and they will likely hold a majority of the delegations state-by-state in a new Congress. (At present, they hold the majority in 33 delegations.)

There is a lot of time between now and the general election, and many things can change, including the economy and Obama's political fortunes. But we are in very unusual times, and it wouldn't be out of the question for this type of earthquake to hit our political system in 2012. And if you thought the 2000 election with its hanging chads in Florida was a political football, an election that gets decided by our despised legislative branch would be the equivalent of an Ultimate Fighting Championship. And the aftershocks of something like this would be felt for years.