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White House Dreamers

Nehemia Horowitz

While fewer than four dozen men have actually ever made it to the White House, that hasn’t deterred a bumper crop of little-known third-party and independent candidates who pulled enough signatures to make their bid for the Oval Office. The field includes “Average Joe the House Painter,” college football coach Robby Wells, a gardener named Samuel “Uncle Sam” Powell, retired US army officer “Mad Max” Riekse, numerous businessmen, a truck driver, and a flight attendant — but who’s looking at credentials?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

americanMany of the candidates believe that the odds against them making it to the White House are not insurmountable, and that they are serious candidates. When suggesting to Coach Wells in a phone interview that his candidacy stood little chance, his response was as hard as a football helmet: “I don’t accept that. If ever there was a time when a third party candidate had a chance to win, it’s now.”

What about the primaries held so far in which only the big names showed up in the final results? Wells pointed out that for him, the primaries were irrelevant, because they were for the Republicans only. He is running for the nomination of North Carolina’s Constitution Party, who will first choose its nominee in April.

Wells is used to taking on challenges. He was the first white head coach at Savannah State University, a historically black college, where his teams posted the school’s best won-loss record in the past decade. When asked how his coaching experience would qualify him for the presidency, Wells replied that he has “proven leadership skills very similar to what’s needed in government. A winning attitude doesn’t start at the bottom and work its way up; it starts at the top and works its way down. If I’m elected president, you’ll have a winner in office,” he said, in the firm, confident voice that has inspired his charges to victory on the gridiron.

 

The Third Way

While the confidence expressed by some of these “third-party candidates” is certain to fade long before Election Day, historically, presidential candidates with little prospect of winning have played a significant role in the election process since the Lincoln era.

When the slave states bolted the Democratic Party in 1860 and nominated John Breckenridge as the Southern Democratic Party nominee, he garnered enough votes, along with Stephen Douglas who ran for the Northern Democrats, to deny Lincoln a majority of the popular vote (though not enough to threaten the latter’s victory in the Electoral College). 

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University cited the 20th-century campaigns of businessman H. Ross Perot and Alabama Governor George Wallace as cases in point.

“Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992, the most ever by an independent since Theodore Roosevelt headed the Bull Moose Party,” said Professor Abramowitz. Perot’s vote count was widely credited with helping Bill Clinton into the White House by taking votes away from the Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush.

Alabama governor George Corley Wallace ran in 1968 on a “law and order” platform, prompting Republican Party candidate Richard Nixon to reconfigure his “southern strategy” to appeal to white voters’ fears of crime and ethnic minorities.

“If Ron Paul decides to make a third-party run,” said Abramowitz, “he would pull votes away from Romney [or Gingrich]. A recent poll showed Paul getting up to 18 percent in a national election.” While third-party candidates tend to fade as Election Day approaches as voters gravitate to a major party rather than “wasting” their vote, Professor Abramowitz contends that if Paul would get even 3 percent it could tip the balance in a close election.

 

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