Why Third Party Candidates Are Like Raccoons in Your Chimney

Here come the third party candidates. They’re all very cute until they wind up in your fireplace.

The thing about third party candidates is that, like love affairs, they are not unlike having raccoons in your chimney.

I began my romantic life as a Republican, a long time ago, back when there were Rockefellers and Nixons, politicians who — crooks though they might have been — were still in many ways to the left of the current Democratic party. In college, however, I flipped over to the Democratic “lifestyle” — first behind my parents’ back, in secret, but by my senior year, openly, and without shame. I was all cued up to slip a ring on Jimmy Carter in 1980, but then along came Jon Anderson of Illinois, and I fell, hard. I knew it was wrong. But I was young, and I was in love.

Rep. John Anderson of Illinois ran as a third-party candidate in 1980.

Anderson had lost the Republican primaries, but he’d made an impression during the campaign as a different sort of politician — the only one to call for moderate gun registration in the New Hampshire debates, the only one who admitted he’d regretted his voting for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1968. As Ronald Reagan rose, transforming the GOP into a more conservative, and to my way of thinking, delusional kind of party, a coalition of voters — including my young self — flirted with him. He ran as an Independent that fall, and wound up with 6.6% of the vote — not enough to have tipped the election to Reagan, who won by 9%, but enough to make what might have been a close election a blowout. Who knows what might have happened if Carter hadn’t had to campaign against two opponents?

I watched Reagan’s inaugural with a sense of guilt. As I watched Reagan take the oath, I felt the burden of someone who only comes to understand how much they love their ex after their divorce is final.

Fortunately, the Democratic party and I had made up by 1992, so when Ross Perot came along, with his disdain for NAFTA and his pledge to end the national debt, I remained loyal to my vows. But nearly 19% of the electorate — including many of my friends — was seduced by his charms, enough to deliver the election to Bill Clinton, who bested George H.W. Bush 43% to 37%. If Perot hadn’t been in the race, Bush 41 might well have prevailed.

2000 provided an even more heartbreaking tale, when many of my friends on the left campaigned for Ralph Nader. When I complained that Nader was a “spoiler,” one friend replied, “There’s nothing to spoil! George W. Bush and Al Gore are almost identical!” Nader went on to win enough votes in Florida and New Hampshire to tilt those states to Bush, assuming Nader’s voters would have gone to Gore.

Ralph Nader: Would a Gore presidency have been “identical” to Bush 43?

You can say what you like about the Presidency of George W. Bush, but one thing you can’t say is that it would have been “identical” to Gores. My friends who voted for Nader and I have agreed never to discuss this issue again.

It’s always this way with affairs: someone, and usually everyone, gets hurt. For a few crazy weeks or months, stars dance in your eyes, and you start imagining things like brokered conventions, or someone running on the Libertarian ticket. If you’re Teddy Roosevelt, you run against your own hand-picked successor, Robert Taft, and you found your own party, which you name after a Bull Moose. Your eyes fill with stars, with dreams of restricting child labor and promoting conservation. But in the morning, what do you leave your children? Say hello to Woodrow Wilson, son. He’s your new daddy.

Say hello to Woodrow Wilson, son. He’s your new daddy.

The perils of affairs, politically, are so well known by now you’d think everyone would know they never, never work out. Except for when they do. In my home state of Maine, in 1994, a four-way yielded Angus King, who was a pretty great Independent Governor, and who is now a pretty great Independent Senator, having defeated Democrat Cynthia Dill and Republican Charlie Summers to fill Olympia Snowe’s seat in 2012.

You’d think Maine would thus be an object lesson in the many blessings of giving in to the third-party passion: except that in the 2010 gubernatorial election, the liberal and moderate vote in my state was split between a democrat and an independent, thus electing Tea Party darling LePage as governor, a man frequently called “the craziest governor in America.” (He recently decorated a Christmas tree with pictures of his legislative allies and squeaked a rubber pig at the press corps.)

As goes Maine, so goes the nation: when it comes to third parties, even when it works, it doesn’t work.

All of which brings us to the present. Most of the spring’s third party fantasies have dissolved like Brigadoon, but there are still a few scenarios out there. Could Trump, even at this late date, wind up outmaneuvered at the convention, and then run as an independent himself? New York’s Michael Bloomberg has examined and apparently rejected a third party bid, but who knows what the future holds? The Libertarian party is on all the ballots — and CNN is hosting a town hall with its candidates next week: Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, and Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts. The only constant in this election year is the complete and utter insanity of everything.

It is good to remember, at times like these, Lorrie Moore’s comparison of love affairs to raccoons in the chimney. “We lit a fire, knowing they were there,” says one of her characters, “but we hoped the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead.”

“Love affairs are like that,” says Moore’s character, and so are third party candidates. Someone always gets burned.