Abraham Lincoln, Ross Perot, and American Third Parties

The Wisconsin schoolhouse where the Republican Party was formed in 1854

If you have had the audacity to voice the possibility that you might choose to vote third party on November 8th, you have probably already run the gamut of party-loyalists on both sides trying to herd you back behind the party line. They use a two-pronged attack.

Prong one: scare you with the spectre of whatever candidate they perceive to be more threatening. Republicans say a vote for a third party is a vote for Hillary. Democrats say a vote for third party is a vote for Trump (this would actually make voting third party a legal form of voting twice, which is kind of appealing to the rebel in me).

Prong two: patronize you into believing that a third party vote is a wasted vote. They assure us that we are naïve and overly idealist — of course they would like to vote for a different candidate too, they assure us, but you just have to grow up and realize that third party candidates don’t, and can’t, win. Then they mutter something unintelligible about the electoral college and the inevitability of the two-party system, give you a drink of water and send you to bed.

This, people, is why we can’t have nice things. May I suggest that a stroll down America’s memory lane is in order.

To those who claim that the “system”, or more preposterously, the electoral college, binds us forever to a two-party system consisting of Republicans vs. Democrats, it may come as a surprise to learn that the United States was not always divided into Republicans and Democrats. The first “two-party” system in the United States did not solidify until the 1790s, and it consisted of the Federalists (who were for more centralization in government) and the Democrat-Republicans, or as they were more commonly known, the “Anti-Federalists” (proving that reactionary politics goes back all the way to the beginning), who were for less centralization. These two major parties held dominance until the 1820s, when the Anti-Federalists party went through a split dividing them into the Jacksonian Democrats, who favored more executive power, and the Whigs, who favored a stronger role for Congress. The Democrats vs. Whig system continued into the 1850s. The Whigs enjoyed a brief “golden age” of power, holding the White House in four out of five terms (although it should be noted that Whig President Harrison’s term consisted of only a little over a month before he died of pneumonia) in the 1840s and early 1850s. Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Fillmore were all Whig Presidents. In the 1850s, the Whig party split, in large part, over the controversial issue of slavery. Enter the Republican Party, and Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln began his political career as a member of the Whig party, and it was as a Whig that he was elected as a House Representative in 1847, and ran for (ultimately losing) a Senate seat in 1854. 1854 was the year of the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act, a Senate bill which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the western territories, with the exception of the state of Missouri. The Kansas-Nebraska Act became a catalyst for what would become known as the Republican party. The party, founded in March of 1854 in a Wisconsin schoolhouse, was formed primarily to be an “anti-slavery party” (although at this point it was not necessarily emancipation-minded, but simply for limiting the expansion of slavery as much as possible), and included in its number many anti-slavery ex-Whigs. Without the support of the anti-slavery element of their party, the Whig party became more and more obsolete until in Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican President in 1860, effectively bringing an end to the once-powerful Whig party.

I’m sure my next example will have folks sniggering already, because the name Ross Perot has become such a byword. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Republicans confess, with tears in their eyes, that they voted for Ross Perot back in ’92, and it got Clinton elected. But in spite of the bad rap that Ross Perot gets, I thought it would be worth taking a look at his candidacy, because it the closest that a non-major party candidate has ever gotten to the White House in recent memory. Considering what I’ve grown up hearing about him, I could not have been more surprised by what I found.

The interesting thing about Ross Perot is that we all tend to remember the end of his story, but we do not bother to look at the beginning and the middle. A Texas businessman and entrepreneur with no prior political experience, Perot began his ascension into the 1992 election sphere with an interview on Larry King Live in February of that year. When asked by Larry King if he would ever consider running for President, Perot expressed reluctance but responded that if “ordinary people” would sign petitions and get him on the ballot in all fifty states, he would be willing to run. With Republicans disenchanted with incumbent George. H.W. Bush for raising taxes after he had expressly promised not to, and voters in general disgusted with the political system, the idea of his candidacy struck a chord with many Americans. With no party backing, no super PAC, and nothing but public support on his side, he entered the race as an Independent, and a fierce ground effort on the part of his supporters secured him a spot on the ballot in all fifty states. By mid-June, a Gallup poll showed Perot with a clear lead over both Bush and Clinton with the popular vote (Perot — 39%, Bush — 31%, Clinton — 25%).

As both parties began to take this third, unexpected opponent more seriously, Perot saw a concentrated effort, especially on the part of Republicans, who at that point stood the most to lose, to defame his character and undermine his candidacy. Perot saw a steady decline in his poll numbers and was ineffective at reversing the trend (campaign managers expressed frustration that he often refused to listen to their advice and they feared that he would not be able to recover because of his obstinate insistence on doing things his own way). Perot damaged his image enormously with African American voters when he famously referred to them as “you people” — a gaffe which he never found a way to recover from. In mid-July, Perot, whether out of sheer frustration or as a misguided tactical move, withdrew from the race, saying that he did not want to be the cause of the Presidency being decided by the House of Representatives in the event of a stalemate.

In September, Perot, even after announcing his withdrawal, was still a contender in the polls at 14%, and he began to hint at the possibility of re-entering the race. To the Bush Campaign, who was now tailing Clinton in the popular vote by 5%, this was looked on as potentially good news, since it had seemed that Perot’s withdrawal had helped Clinton more than it had helped Bush, and some speculated that Perot could pull votes away from Clinton, giving the majority to Bush.

Ultimately Perot could not recover from the worst move of his campaign: dropping out in July. On Election Day he received just short of 19% of the popular vote, and received no electoral votes because his remaining support was not concentrated enough in any state to actually win it. Bill Clinton won the election with 43% of the popular vote to Bush’s 37.4%, and 370 electoral votes to Bush’s 168.

There are many lessons that we could take from Ross Perot’s failed bid for the White House, but that a third party candidate can never win an election is a rather funny one. Things could have gone very differently if Perot had been more strategic about winning concentrated support in key states, or listened to the advice of his campaign managers on how to deal with negative press, and most of all, if he had not chosen to withdraw for two crucial months leading up to the election. All in all, considering that fact that he had no political experience, that his support was largely grass-roots, that he did not have the backing of any established political party, and the hit that his image took by withdrawing and re-entering, getting almost a fifth of the popular vote was really quite an extraordinary accomplishment.

Ross Perot, instead of teaching us just how plausible it still is to threaten the Republican/Democrat stranglehold on American politics, has become a kind of political morality tale. He is the boogie man that the Republican Party uses to scare wayward children who think about straying too far from home — a rather ironic message from a party that began outside the major-party circle.

What I’ve hoped to illustrate is that, in American politics, although things do eventually shake down to two, major parties, these parties do not have to be, and have not always been, the same two parties. Parties change and evolve, and rise and fall. This allows the country to evolve in a healthy, democratic way. Third parties can force a complacent major party to reform, or, like the Republican Party, it can replace it and become the new major party.

Discounting non-major parties out of hand and demanding that voters pick a side will do one of two things: either it will cow America into accepting increasingly worse candidates every year, or will eventually irritate them so much that they will vote third party just to spite you.

I’m putting my money on option 2.

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