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Essay/Term paper: The effect of third party candidates in presidental elections

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities Essays

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The Effect of Third Party Candidates in Presidental Elections

Although citizens of the United States have the opportunity to vote for
many different offices at the national, state, and local levels, the election of
the president of the United States every four years is the focal point of the
American political process. The American political system has maintained a two-
party system since its inception. Political scientists argue that a two-party
system is the most stable and efficient means of running a democratic nation as
a mono-party system leads toward tyranny, and a multi-party system creates over-
diversification and gridlock (Mazmanian 6). The Constitution of the United
States does not in any way limit the structure of the political system to two
parties. In fact, there has been no presidential election where there were only
two candidates; however, third-party candidates are rarely represented in a
majority of the states, and those that were on the ballot in a majority of
states have never been successful. However, on a few occasions, third party
candidates have been able to make a significant impact on the presidential
election process such as George Wallace in 1968 and H. Ross Perot in 1992.
Through nineteenth century there was little deviation from the traditional
two-party system. Until then, political candidates were utterly dependant upon
the political infrastructure of an established party for their campaigns. Until
the development of mass media technologies, including radio and television,
political candidates had no direct means of communicating with the public and
were thus dependant on the communications systems of the major parties. Thus,
third party movements lacked the capabilities to run an effective campaign
against the major parties.
However, mass media has changed the scope of the election process and
brought about the demise of the major political parties (Robinson 147).
Candidates who run a television dominated campaign have hurt their parties in a
number of ways. The media specialists who manage such campaigns tend to be
loyal to a candidate rather than to the candidate's party; as a result, the
campaign supports a single candidate and not the entire ticket of the party. In
addition, the heavy reliance on television allows a candidate to reach voters
directly, thereby weakening the traditional function of the party as an
information and communication body acting as an intermediary between the
candidate and the voters.
Other developments have served to weaken the role of the party in the
presidential campaign. The growth of computerized "direct-mail fundraising
techniques" and "computerized e-mail" have encroached on activities
traditionally performed by the political party (Robinson 150). Also, recent
reforms in the areas of campaign financing and delegate selection to the
nominating conventions have made the party less significant with respect to
fund-raising and candidate selection (Robinson 151). The decreasing role of the
political party in the presidential campaign and the increasing ability of the
candidates themselves to provide their own publicity has brought about the
beginning of a new political era in which the dominance of the major parties is
questionable, and the potential for a non-affiliated candidate to mount a
competitive campaign is very realistic.
In theory, it is possible for a completely independent candidate to be
elected to the presidency, provided the candidate is highly competent,
charismatic, eloquent, and photogenic, and the candidate is running against
relatively weak candidates of the major parties (Mazmanian 21). However, at
this time, political analysts stipulate that the chances of this happening are
slim because a majority of Americans are xenophobic enough to be wary of the
unknown candidate.
An independent candidate can, however, have a dramatic impact on the
outcome of the election without actually winning. Simply by running, a strong
independent candidate can create problems for the major candidate whose views
are most similar his own. First, the independent can either split the vote
causing the opposing major candidate to win, or second, the independent can
withdraw and give their support and potentially a significant voting block, to
one of the major candidates in exchange for a change in the candidate's platform
to include the independent's views. These influences by an independent, third
party candidate were demonstrated in both the 1968 and 1992 elections.
George Wallace, independent candidate of the newly formed American
Independent Party, took 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 election, and won
seventy electoral votes in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas,
Mississippi, and Georgia, and making him the most successful independent to run
for the presidency. The American Independent Party was a "white supremacist . .
. , ultra-conservative" (Mazmanian 130) organization founded in reaction to the
1960's civil rights movement and the Supreme Court's overturning of "separate,
but equal" (Plessy v. Ferguson) statute that forced integration. George Wallace,
then governor of Alabama, was a pronounced racist who became nationally known by
refusing to allow the integration of Alabama schools in spite of a federal order
to do so. Wallace ran his campaign on a platform of state's rights and
increased defense spending and gained a large following of voters in southern
states. The political purpose of Wallace's campaign was to force one or both of
the major party candidates, Nixon and Humphery, to a more conservative position
on the issue of state's rights. Wallace wanted the federal government to give
the states the power to decide whether of not to desegregate (Mazmanian 89).
However, neither Nixon or Humphery were willing to make concessions to Wallace,
and this resulted in the closest presidential election in the history of the
United States. Nixon came out on top, but he won over Humphery by only 0.7% the
popular vote (about 500,000 out of 70 million votes) (Mazmanian 201). The
votes that Wallace controlled could easily have reversed the outcome of the 1968
election if Humphery had been willing to assimilate Wallace's platform into his
own. Thus third-party politics had a major effect on the 1968 election.
H. Ross Perot became, in 1992, the second most successful independent
candidate to run for the presidency. Although Perot received nineteen percent
(19%) of the popular vote, (six percent more than Wallace) Perot failed to win
any individual states and therefore received no electoral votes (Jackson). Ross
Perot ran a platform based solely on economic change. Although this platform
captured the interest of a large number of Americans in a short time, his
failure to define his position on other issues or to particularize his plans for
cleaning up the economy lead to his downfall in the latter part of the campaign
(Murr 71). The political effect of Ross Perot's involvement in the 1992
campaign was to force the major candidates to address the voters more directly
and to make them state their positions on controversial issues. This, and
Perot's repeated attacks on the failed "trickle-down economics", placed the less
eloquent incumbent, George Bush, at a marked disadvantage (Murr 73). Also,
Perot was identified as a conservative and thus he forced a split in the
conservative vote away from Bush. Perot then voiced limited support for
Clinton towards the end of the campaign which switched some "traditional
Republican votes" to the Democratic party (Goldman 55 ). Thus, Ross Perot
contributed considerably to Clinton's campaign.
George Wallace and Ross Perot are two diametrically opposed characters.
Wallace ran for president for a less than noble cause - to protect the interests
of racist southern whites like himself. Conversely, Perot ran for president
because he wanted to bring the American public back into the political system
and to "clean-up the mess in Washington" (Robinson 78). However, these two men
share a commonality. Both fielded a relatively successful presidential campaign
that greatly affected the outcome of the election. Also, they both caused a
shift in power away from the incumbent party.
The Perot campaign also had long term affects. Perot managed to convince
the American people that it was "time to get rid of the old politicians and old
way of doing things" (Robinson 36). Perot's support of Clinton led many voters
to believe that they were doing just that, but when after two years Clinton had
failed to pass any of the major legislation of his campaign platform, the
American voters backlashed with a landslide Republican victory in the 1994
Congressional elections.
The presidential election is the focal point of the American political
process. It is, in essence, a decision made by the citizens of the United
States to determine the course of action for the nation for a four year span and
is arguably the most important recurring event in the life of the nation. The
ability of a third-party faction to affect the outcome of the election can be a
very powerful and dangerous force. Indeed, Ross Perot and George Wallace had a
profound effect on the outcome of the elections they participated in, but Perot
had a more lasting effect. Ross Perot proved to the world that it is quite
plausible for a completely independent candidate to "walk into center stage and
steal the show" (Robinson 141). With the decline of the political parties and
their role in the campaign process, the possibilities for more successful
independent candidates can only increase. Eventually an independent will go
farther than swaying the outcome. One day an independent will win.

Works Cited

Brown, Gene. H. Ross Perot: Texas Billionaire. Vero Beach: Rourke Enterprises,
Inc, 1993.

Goldman, Peter and Tom Mathews. "The Manhattan Project". Newsweek (Special
Election Issue) November/December, 1992. pp.40-57

Jackson, David. "3rd party chances gauged" Dallas Morning News. November 5, 1992.

Mazmanian, Daniel A. Third Parties in Presidential Elections. New York: Franklin
Watts, 1974.

Murr, Andrew. "Superhero". Newsweek (Special Election Issue) November/December,
1992. pp.70-77.

Robinson, James W., ed. Ross Perot Speaks Out. Rocklin: Prima Publishing, 1992.


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