Republicans are hoping that 2012 recapitulates the model of three elections in which challengers took the presidency. In 1968, the incumbent vice-president failed to win after the president decided not to run for a second full term rather than face defeat. In 1980, the incumbent lost in a landslide. In 1992, the incumbent garnered only 38 percent.
One striking aspect of all these elections was the existence of a serious third-party candidate—George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992. Wallace got 13 percent and won five states. Perot scored 19 percent, second only in American history to Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party 27 percent in 1912. In these cases, the presence of the third-party candidate threw off every conventional electoral calculation and without question contributed significantly to the defeat of Humphrey in ’68 and the elder Bush in ’92. Indeed, there is a strong political-science argument that Perot’s vote cost Bush the election. In 1980, the liberal Republican third partier, John Anderson, was a media darling and won a substantial 7 percent, but given that Reagan beat Carter by almost 11 points, did not affect the overall race materially.
I haven’t even mentioned the most meaningful third-party challenger, Ralph Nader, whose 3 percent cost Al Gore the election in 2000—but that was for an open seat. Still, it’s valuable to note that in all these cases, the threat posed by the third-party challenger was not to the opposition candidate but to the incumbent. Always to the incumbent. That was even true in 1948, when Henry Wallace (from the left) and Strom Thurmond (from the racists) both ate away at the Democratic base and sliced into Harry Truman’s vote—though not fatally, as it turned out. Of course, in 1948 registered Democratic voters outnumbered registered Republicans by an enormous margin. That is no longer the case; the parties are close to parity now.
There is talk these days that Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah who served as Obama’s ambassador to China, might be setting himself up to run as a third-party candidate with his attacks on the GOP’s attitudes toward science and the like. Perhaps, but if so, he is more likely to fill the role of John Anderson, taking votes away from moderates and liberals looking for someone to vote for other than the incumbent, than he is to play a Perot-like spoiler. Indeed, given the astoundingly fawning treatment Huntsman receives in the pages of Vogue this month from Slate.com’s Jacob Weisberg, the embodiment of mainstream liberal media views, Huntsman is well on his way to being the new John Anderson if he wants to be.
It’s hard to conjure up a scenario in which a third-party challenge doesn’t harm Obama and help Republicans.