CARL LEUBSDORF: Whither a third party in this election?

By Carl Leubsdorf

Given the strong public dissatisfaction over the country’s direction and the state of its politics, one surprising aspect of the 2012 campaign has been the failure of any significant third-party candidate to emerge.
It’s not for lack of trying: The long-established Libertarian Party last weekend picked a Republican also-ran, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, to head its ticket.
And the fledgling nonpartisan Americans Elect may achieve its goal of getting on all 50 state ballots. But the group was forced to delay the first stage in its complicated online nominating procedure because none of the relatively obscure hopefuls willing to run met its standards for consideration.
In any case, the current situation is not unusual.
Since the House decided the multi-candidate presidential race of 1824, one of the two major parties has won every election.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party sank Republican President William Howard Taft in 1912. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader may have cost Democrat Al Gore the decisive electoral votes of New Hampshire in 2000.
Some of the bigger names among insurgents won electoral votes, like Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968, but failed to alter the outcome. Others mainly influenced the conversation; Ross Perot had sufficient support in 1992 and 1996 to qualify for the televised debates.
Most past insurgent candidates, like the two Wallaces and Perot, formed a party for their candidacies.
By contrast, Americans Elect, a collection of wealthy sponsors, dissatisfied centrists and political neophytes upset by today’s partisan gridlock, is getting ballot space first and then trying to recruit a candidate.
Rep. Ron Paul has attracted the most supporters, but the Texas congressman is still running for the Republican nomination. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown no interest.
Active Americans Elect hopefuls with the most support are former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, another 2012 GOP also-ran, and former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson.
Any bigger impact, other than winning the presidency, could come from winning a state or two in a very close contest that denied both Obama and Romney the necessary 270 electoral votes and threw the election into the House of Representatives for the first time since 1824.
That would almost certainly mean Romney’s election. Each state would have one vote and Republicans control 33 of the 50 delegations. (The Senate, where Democrats currently have a slight edge, would elect the vice president.)
But that’s very unlikely. Third parties often enliven presidential races, but inevitably have less impact than their sponsors envision.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.