Why Not Third And Fourth Party Candidates For President?

[screen shot MSNBC Getty]

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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If the so-called Republican establishment is successful in thwarting Donald Trump’s nomination at the Republican convention this summer, there is a good chance Trump and his loyal supporters will launch a third party run. Given the Donald’s propensity for naming things after himself, it might even be called the Trump party. But if Trump does secure the Republican nomination, it is possible that Ted Cruz or John Kasich could run under a third party banner. Both, along with Trump, are now hedging on their earlier pledges to support the party’s nominee.

Conventional wisdom holds that a third party candidacy on the right will assure a Democratic victory in the fall. The history of third party runs for the White House confirms that wisdom. But what if there is also a fourth party? What if Bernie Sanders and his merry band of loyal supporters launch their own third party run?

The Sandernistas have good reason to think about a break with the Democrat establishment. Despite numerous Sanders victories, some by true landslide proportions, Hillary Clinton’s march to the nomination progresses unabated. Well over 90 percent of the super delegates have already declared for Clinton.  Most of the super delegates are elected public officials and you can’t get more establishment in politics than that.

Two third party candidacies in this election could be just what the doctor ordered for our ailing political system. Of course there are perennial third party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson, but with Trump and Sanders we would have candidates with serious prospects for garnering electoral votes. Sanders would surely win in Vermont, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and maybe even California. Trump would likely win in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska and maybe Arizona. Meanwhile Clinton would win in New York, Illinois and several southern states where she has been endlessly pandering to Black voters. Ted Cruz or John Kasich, either as the Republican or a third party candidate, would likely win at least their home states, both with large electoral college votes.

The possibly happy result of such an election would be that no candidate would receive the 270 electoral college votes needed for election to the presidency. That would throw the selection to the House of Representatives where the politics could be even messier that the election. It’s anybody’s guess who would emerge from a contested presidential election in the House as it exists after the 2016 election, but it seems likely that the experience would force the political parties to rethink both who they are and how they want to go about nominating future candidates for president.

The Republican and Democrat parties have dominated American politics for generations. The power of incumbency has allowed for careers in politics that surely count as an establishment. Since 1964 no fewer than 85 percent of incumbent House members have been reelected and since 1980 the reelection rate in the Senate has fallen below 79 percent only once. These people have powerful incentives to keep the ship of state on course. A first in a century and a half contested presidential election in the House among four candidates of widely divergent views would rock their establishment boat.

Experience tells both parties to avoid divisions that might lead to breakaway third party candidacies. That’s why Clinton keeps tacking ever more leftward in hopes of luring Sanders loyalists to support her once she gets the nomination. But the Sandernistas should not be fooled. The pragmatic drive for power that now leads Clinton to the left will pull her back toward the center in the general election. There is little chance that Sanders’ far left agenda will be enacted even if he is elected president, but helping to throw the election into the House could be satisfying for his anti-establishment followers.

The same calculus could make sense for Trump if he is denied the Republican nomination. His supporters seem indifferent to his incoherent and ill-considered positions on policy. They are about throwing out the establishment and what could be better than disrupting the established way we have elected our presidents for the last 150 years.

Most of us have our own favorite for president in 2016, but whoever is elected will serve for only eight years at most. The establishment will continue on as it has for decades unless there is a revolution of some sort. Four presidential candidates with serious prospects to garner electoral votes would be a revolution. In light of the sorry state of our national politics, perhaps we should welcome the uncertainties of an election of the president in the House of Representatives. Those uncertainties could be just the shakeup that both Trumpians and Sandernistas are looking for. And once the dust settled, our politics might actually be the better for it.