During any presidential campaign, any number of third party candidates may make a run for the nomination. Aside from their entertainment value, they very occasionally have an impact on our political culture, which, to be fair, is probably more than actual, elected presidents have made. Today we’ll took at the history of these parties.
History is riddled with single-issue cranks and hard-boiled extremists running for the top position in the land, many with varying degrees of seriousness. Many individuals (I almost said “men” but then I realized that a rather significantly larger proportion of individuals who run for president as third party candidates are female, and by “significantly larger proportion” I mean “more than zero”) simply run to bring a particular issue to the table; some run to spoil another’s chance at victory; some run vanity campaigns to satisfy their egos and, apparently, are very much interested in the well-being of the advertising budgets of network television and lawyers from moderately-prestigious law firms; and some run because they’re batshit crazy.
Some, of course, run for all of those reasons.
The history of third parties is fascinatingly boring. On the one hand, the causes they espouse, ranging from free love to the colonization of Mars, are brilliantly different than talking about, say, the Alternative Minimum Tax or our Southeast Asian Foreign Policy. On the other hand, they very rarely, if ever, make that much of an impact on the actual, legitimate result of an election, since close elections tend to keep spoilers away from the ballot unless your name happens to rhyme with “Dalph Vader.”
There are three significant elections that a fringe party made headway at the presidential ballot box. Way back in 1856, a little-known third party attempted to challenge the entrenched Democratic Party and a decaying Whig Party, running on the doomed platform of liberating the slaves or, at the very least, being a touch nicer to them. While the brand-spankin’-new Republican Party lost fairly badly that time—elections back then were touch-and-go affairs, where the actual votes cast by property-owning males tended to be secondary to other, more pecuniary matters—they came back with a vengeance, winning a four-way race in 1860, an event so anticipated with jubilance by the entire population 618,000 people died in celebration.
In 1912, the rather curious affair of the presidential election was handled by walrus, a drunken bull, and a cold fish. Strictly speaking, this is a fringe party in name only. Teddy Roosevelt, having spent a term and a half formulating policy centered chiefly around eating the raw flesh of bears and aiming a crossbow at the future Kaiser, retired to the safari after handing the keys to William Howard Taft, a man so large he once got stuck in a textbook of obligatory presidential facts. Taft proved to be a lackluster president, spending most of his time sleeping, which to be honest I think more presidents would be better off doing.
Nonetheless, Roosevelt, after being denied the nomination at the Republican Convention, created his own third party. It is the testament of the man that he was able to form an entire party unto himself simply via the act of existing. He called this party the “Bull Moose” party, the most absurd name I’ve ever heard for a political coalition since the Greenback Labor Party, which I am convinced was simply the whimsical creation of a confused and apparently colorblind racist. He came up with the name after a speech in which he said that he felt as “strong as a textbook of obligatory presidential facts.”
The last time a third party candidate blipped on the radar was H. Ross Perot, a computer-company magnate. Granted, he made his money when computers will strictly cardboard-and-vacuum-tube affairs, but they money was still green after all these years, so he was legitimately rich. This of course means he was officially able to purchase a spot on the ballot. It is a uniquely American thing that the population assumes anyone who is able to operate a business successfully has the management experience to run an entire country, the presumption being that the business they run has employees hired on the basis of their connections and can never be fired for any offense less than urinating in the Pope’s Wheaties, and even then; the output of the business cannot be measured except in terms of how photogenic the employees look on campaign brochures; and any decision you make on either side will immediately be considered 1) racist; 2) sexist; and 3) somehow hurting the poor, all three problems of which can be alleviated if a new bridge is built in their district.
Anyway, Perot’s main platform seemed to be a mixture of 1) I’m rich! and 2) You’re not. His campaign was an eclectic one, eschewing much of the modern campaign’s techniques. He used a series of infomercials to send his message of fiscal prudence and non-batshit-craziness to the masses, and his folksy manner reminded most voters of their vaguely remembered slightly bigoted uncle. His intermittent campaign, combined with the fact that voters are reluctant to elect a clinically insane man as president, doomed his campaign to failure. His legacy still lives on, of course; American voters have come to terms with this, and have embraced clinical insanity as a political virtue. Dalph Vader would be proud.