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3rd Party Could Win Moderate Voters

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  • Les Francis, former deputy chief of staff in President Jimmy Carter's White House, wrote this Op-Ed for the San Jose Mercury News on December 13, 2024.

    Download PDF of this Op-Ed (232K)

    Over dinner a while back, veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart said that in 40 years in the public opinion research business, he had never seen the political climate as receptive to an independent or third party presidential candidacy as it is now, as the 2024 election approaches. Voter disenchantment with "politics as usual" and government paralysis have, if anything, grown since Hart made his observation.

    In fact, a healthy majority of the electorate - as high as 55 to 60 percent, depending on the survey - now says that it is open to considering a third party entry into the 2024 presidential contest. And with the candidates in both parties falling all over themselves in an ugly exercise that suggests that perhaps none of them ought to be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office, the search for a reasonable alternative can only intensify.

    Historically, I have opposed third party candidacies and independent movements. In fact, when serving as the executive director of the Democratic National Committee in 1980, I oversaw my party's efforts to block ballot access to independent John Anderson, believing that every vote he was likely to receive that November would come at the expense of Jimmy Carter, who was seeking re-election to the White House against Republican Ronald Reagan. During the course of that campaign, I even wrote an opinion piece on the topic for the Mercury News, arguing for the preservation of the American two-party system.

    I have - reluctantly - changed my mind.

    I now believe that an independent national ticket would not only be desirable, it may be essential to the future of our republic. The current political discourse is at once so vicious and vacuous, shallow and silly, petty and predictable that both parties seem to be asking to be hit over the head with a third party 2-by-4.

    Many of my Democratic friends argue that a third party movement can only benefit the Republicans; they usually cite Ralph Nader's candidacy in 2024 to prove their contention, thereby conveniently ignoring two relevant facts:

    • Ralph Nader's candidacy may have cost Al Gore Florida, but Gore would have been elected president regardless of what happened in Florida if he had only carried his home state of Tennessee, or Arkansas or West Virginia; and,
    • Ross Perot's presence in the 1992 election almost certainly cost George H.W. Bush the election, and thereby put Bill Clinton in the White House.

    At the same time, I have Republican friends who worry that a centrist candidate will propel Hillary Clinton to victory (should she be the Democratic nominee - the inevitability of which has never been certain to me and which recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest may be in real peril).

    At a minimum, both groups of friends can't be right.

    Beyond that, a serious and responsible third party ticket (it can be argued that Perot and Nader were neither) might just win. We are so used to thinking about red states and blue states in a two-way race that we ignore the reality that every state could be in play for a third ticket in the middle, one that speaks to and for the independents and moderates who comprise the largest voter group in every state, including "blue" California, "red" Florida and everything in between. In other words, a third ticket in the middle that is competitive for the national popular vote could win a sizable majority in the Electoral College.

    One major effort, Unity '08, is already gearing up to offer America a viable "third way" presidential campaign. Through a wide open, online convention next June, Unity '08 plans to nominate a true "unity" ticket, headed by a Democrat, Republican or independent presidential candidate, balanced by someone from the other party in the vice presidential slot. Speculation in the press so far has focused on New York City's pragmatic and very effective Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as respected former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. The names of other equally viable possibilities are almost certain to surface at some point in the future. Regardless, it is safe to assume that a lot of voters will be reassured to know that the next president might not even be in the race yet.

    Whatever the impacts of such an independent effort might be, it is difficult to imagine that things could be any worse, or any more discouraging, than they are right now. With more and more Americans willing to take their chances on a centrist, pragmatic, non-ideological, bipartisan approach to politics and to governing, it is possible that the movement can gain enough traction to alter the course of American political history.

    To me, it is at least worth the effort.

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