Could Third-Party Tremors Result in a 2012 Political Earthquake?

Aug 24, 2011 6:00am

Matthew Dowd, ABC News Analyst reports:

In the dog days of summer and in the aftermath of the unusual earthquake to hit the Washington, D.C. 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 governor and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is conducting himself this week in high profile criticizing 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 has basically been stuck around 40 percent. For the last 60 years, an incumbent president running for re-election 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 in-between 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 re-election 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 base conservative vote, and Obama’s approval numbers stay low, then we basically 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. If one looks at Republicans who are for smaller government, low taxes and socially conservative, they represent about 26 percent of all voters. If you consider the bloc of Democrats who are for larger government, higher taxes, and socially more progressive, that represents about 23 percent of all voters. Thus, 51 percent of the electorate is a mishmash of independents, and not ideological members of either political party.

I have created the scenario for an opening for a third-party run. So what is the likely outcome or scenarios if that happens (and as each day goes forward, it becomes increasingly more inevitable that an independent could run) in the general election?

First, based on the allocation of votes around the country; the Electoral College, which makes it very hard for third-party success; and the history of failed third-party candidacies, it makes it unlikely a third party can actually win. The deck is just stacked in favor of the two parties, and the inherent electoral structure makes it incredibly difficult for anyone else.

Second, the third-party candidate draws a large minority percentage of the vote, but doesn’t win any states (thus electoral votes). This scenario likely re-elects Obama, who now just needs 38 percent of the vote nationally to succeed. He wins enough states with a percentage in the forties, and gathers a majority of electoral votes. The Republican base is below this, and without an ability to force enough voters to kick Obama out of office because of the third-party siphon effect, watches as a president without a majority of voters gets re-elected. This has happened a number of times in American political history.

Third, the third-party candidate is able to win enough states (and hence electoral votes), to actually cause neither major party from winning the required 270 electoral votes. The election is then thrown into the House of Representatives, which — when looking at how the voting works — 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 and hanging chads in Florida was a political football, an election that gets decided by our despised congressional branch will be the equivalent of an Ultimate Fighting Championship. And the aftershocks of something like this would be felt for years.

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