Perot, an independent candidate, bucked all odds in our electoral system when he ran in 1992. He received 1 out of five votes or about 19 percent of the vote in that November election, running against an unpopular incumbent president and a come from behind candidate, Bill Clinton. Had he not dropped out earlier his final count would have been much higher. He drew support from those who believed that they had been marginalized by the politics of that year.
Studies have shown that Perot captured voters in the “vacant center” of American politics. Perot based his campaign on three issues: size of the federal debt, reform of government and bringing back jobs to America. Do those issue sound familiar?
During August, Congress was in recess which gave most members an opportunity to talk with their constituents individually or in town halls. You would think that they would be scheduling town halls. Sadly, that was not the case. A survey found that “nearly 68 percent of Democrats and nearly 51 percent of Republicans have no town halls scheduled.”
Some town halls that were held such as those in New Hampshire turned violently angry. Disapproval of Congress hit an all time low of 82 percent. President Obama’s approval rating is in freefall.
Voters are angry with their representatives and some in the media have characterized the atmosphere as “toxic.” Debate over the debt limit in Congress and the seeming inability of Congress to work its will on this important issue are part of the mix.
Republican presidential candidates campaigning to take advantage of voter anger are stoking the toxic mix. The tea party wing of the Republican Party is represented by the candidacies of Michelle Bachman, Ron Paul and now Rick Perry, and their campaign appeals will solidify opposition in Congress to any kind of plan that could conceivably create jobs or make the economy work.
Republican elites are wondering how these candidates can capture the middle in a presidential election if one of them became the nomine of their party. Will they want to capture the middle? Thus, the vacant center like in 1992 may present an opportunity for a third party candidate in 2012.
Any third party candidate would face dynamic institutional barriers in winning the presidency. Duverger’s law from social sciences says that the plurality system existing in our congressional and presidential elections forces us into a two party system which is a huge barrier for a third party candidate to overcome.
The big challenge for our two party system in 2012 will be how to accommodate the diverse views within its parties and nominate a centrist candidate. So far, the politics of 2010 and 2011 don’t show much promise that this will occur.
Perry J. Mitchell is a retired political science professor living in Ocean View.