The dream of the independent third party presidential candidate shall never die -- at least in the columns of elite pundits like Thomas Friedman. In his latest effort, Friedman predicts "a serious third party candidate" for the presidency in 2012:
Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.
There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.
Interestingly, however, Friedman fails to mention this prediction from an April 2006 column:
If the Democrats shirk this energy challenge, as the Republicans have, I'm certain there is going to be a third party in the 2008 election. It is going to be called the Geo-Green Party, and it is going to win a lot of centrist voters. The next Ross Perot will be green.
He later hyped the concept in columns in May and June 2006 before dropping it until a March 2010 column calling for (unlikely) changes to the political system that would make third party candidates more viable.
I've written at great length about the reasons that successful third party candidacies are extremely unlikely. Along these lines, Steve Kornacki of Salon (where I cross-post) has posted an excellent response to Friedman showing how structural obstacles and the incentive to avoid a "wasted" vote doomed John Anderson's centrist presidential campaign in 1980 (a context with many potential parallels to 2012 if the economy doesn't recover).
And even if a third party candidate did pull off a miracle and win the presidency, it would not create the "superconsensus" that Friedman wants, particularly in Congress. Here's Steve Benen:
In other words, Friedman has effectively endorsed the entirety of President Obama's agenda, most of which has passed, can't pass, or has to be severely watered down because of unprecedented Senate obstructionism. But instead of calling for reforming the legislative process, or calling on Republicans to start playing a constructive role in policymaking, or calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses, Friedman says what we really need is an amorphous third party that will think the way he does.
To hear Friedman tell it, this mystery party is, in effect, needed to pass a bolder, more sweeping version of the Democratic agenda. Why not just elect more and better Democrats to make that possible? Friedman doesn't say. How would the Friedman Party overcome Republican obstructionism? He doesn't say. How would this third party make the kind of institutional changes that have stifled the process in recent years? Friedman doesn't say.
Other than that, it's a fine idea.
It just gets so tiresome when this crowd argues, for the umpteenth time, that a magical entity can emerge that will agree with Democrats but not really, establish a "consensus" among people with sincere disagreements, and govern successfully without all the messiness that comes with a massive democratic system.
The best precedent in contemporary politics is Jesse Ventura, who was elected governor in Minnesota as an independent candidate and tried to govern without the support of either major party. Needless to say, it did not go well.
Update 10/5 12:01 PM: To underscore how frequently pundits hype unlikely third-party scenarios, I've compiled a timeline of third-party hype since 2005. History has not been kind to these claims.
On his new 538 blog at NYTimes.com, Nate Silver argues that "the political climate could potentially be very favorable to a third-party candidate in 2012" and that "those who are critiquing [Friedman] are making too much of a data set — the performance of third-party candidates in recent Presidential elections — that contains too few salient examples." It's certainly true that the historical record of modern presidential campaigns is short. However, the key point is that political scientists have strong theoretical reasons to doubt the viability of a third-party presidential campaign, which include the logic of strategic voting, the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, the fact that the House decides the election if there is an Electoral College deadlock, difficulties in securing ballot access in all fifty states, and the lack of a significant activist or electoral constituency for a centrist candidate. The context may be relatively more favorable to a third-party candidate in 2012 than it has been since at least 1980, but all of those factors are still likely to dissuade serious candidates and to limit the impact of any that do enter.
In addition, neither Friedman nor anyone else has provided a plausible rationale for an actual third party campaign that could attract votes. For all the hype about third parties in 2008, the Unity 2008 "movement" shut down after attracting 124,000 supporters rather than the predicted 5-20 million. Similarly, the draft Bloomberg petition went nowhere, which was to be expected since his candidacy had no constituency and no rationale. As one "Bush campaign veteran" put it, "Is there a single American clamoring for a Bloomberg presidency? A single one?"
Update 10/6 8:26 AM: See also Jonathan Bernstein on the distinction between a "serious" third party candidate (not totally unlikely if you define "serious" as someone like John Anderson or Ross Perot who can attract 5-20% of the vote) and a third party candidate who actually has a realistic chance of winning (far more unlikely).