THERE IS A WAY to make sense of all the speculation about a third-party presidential campaign in 1996: Ignore it.
Among political junkies, the third-party buzz has become rife. It was stoked by the convention of Ross Perot supporters in Dallas last month. It was further stoked by New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley's retirement announcement and his talk of running for president as an independent. Then came a new Times Mirror survey indicating that 26 percent of the public would support an independent presidential candidacy.
Meanwhile, former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker has been promoting himself as potential non-Republican, non-Democratic presidential material. Jesse Jackson vowed last week that come 1996, "I will be a part of the equation no matter what." And looming over all is Colin Powell, the popular former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Whether he's mulling a run for the White House, Powell won't quite say. But in a speech at Salem State College, he did note that he had "checked the Constitution very carefully, and you do not have to belong to a political party." Nudge nudge, wink wink.
I repeat: Forget about it.
Ross Perot will not be the next president of the United States
That isn't to say there won't be more than two parties running candidates next year. Every election offers a slew of alternatives for the resolutely non-Demopublican. But in the end those candidates never make a difference. While plenty of Americans say they are disenchanted with the two-party system, there is no evidence that any candidate, ideology, or organization is about to usher in a three-party system.
Third parties have succeeded in US history only by becoming one of the two parties. That happened most recently in 1856, when the new Republican Party -- formed to oppose the extension of slavery -- surged past the Whigs, who had been torn apart by the North-South split. The Republican ticket headed by John Fremont carried 11 (of the then 31) states and drew 33 percent of the vote. That wasn't enough to defeat the Democratic nominee, James Buchanan, but it was enough to beat the Whigs, who got only 21.5 percent of the vote, carried only one state (Maryland) and faded into history. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president.
Neither will Bill Bradley
For a third party to break the Republican-Democratic lock on the White House, three things are necessary: deep pockets, a popular ticket, and a passion-igniting issue. None of those the Great Mentioner has been mentioning offers all three. Most don't even offer one.
Pockets. Perot is loaded, but what did his riches avail him in 1992? He poured $60 million of his own money into a campaign against a weak Democrat and a weaker Republican. Electoral votes won: zero. Even for a billionaire, it takes more than money to become president.
Popularity. Bradley would have trouble carrying his home state. (Else why is he retiring?) Weicker would have trouble carrying his. (Ditto.) Perot and Jackson inspire a small band of loyalists; far larger is the number of voters who wouldn't vote for either on a dare. Only Powell enjoys great admiration -- and he's a total blank slate. Once he starts taking positions on issues (something he has so far scrupulously avoided) his soaring approval numbers will fall to earth. It is passing strange to be touting a man for president when no one knows what he stands for or believes.
Passion. In the last 70 years, the only third-party candidates to actually win electoral votes were Southern segregationists -- Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968. Their hatred of civil rights was the engine that drove their campaigns. What passion would fuel a maverick candidacy in 1996? What burning cause would draw tens of millions of voters away from the two major parties? I can't think of one. I suspect Messrs. Bradley, Perot, Weicker, Jackson, and Powell can't, either.
It's not going to happen. All the chatter about a third-party candidate is precampaign bloviating, something for the pundits to chew on until the primaries start. The road to the White House runs through the Republican and Democratic parties. It has since 1856. It will next year.