One of the most closely watched Senate races this year was Republican Mike DeWine's spirited challenge to longtime Ohio Sen. John Glenn. Glenn's national fame as astronaut and, less heroically but more recently, as one of the "Keating Five" drew press attention to the race. GOP operatives thought it was a race they could win, and party donors pumped millions into DeWine's campaign.
But when the results popped up in the network election coverage and on the wire services election night, they were underwhelming. Glenn had won re-election handily, with 55 percent of the vote to DeWine's 45 percent.
Vindication for Glenn? Not exactly. The results were false. They left out the 7 percent of Ohio's vote won by Martha Grevatt, the nominee of the Worker's World Party. In fact, Glenn won barely over 50 percent of the vote—hardly a ringing endorsement.
In Georgia, the news media had no choice but to report the true results of that state's Senate race. Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler got slightly more votes than Republican Paul Coverdell, 49 percent versus 48 percent. But in Georgia, you must win 50 percent in a statewide race to avoid a runoff, and Libertarian Jim Hudson's 3 percent kept Fowler from that goal. Coverdell won the runoff by about 15,000 votes.
One reason Americans weren't told how successful third parties were on election night is that the news media's provider of election returns, the News Election Service, doesn't bother reporting how most third parties do. Local newspapers and TV stations often provide better information in their own areas, but the lack of comprehensive information helps keep third-party and independent candidates off the national news.
That's too bad, because their performance is one of the most interesting stories of 1992. Whether because of Ross Perot's roller-coaster campaign or a general sense of disaffection with the choices presented by the major parties, third parties and independent candidates enjoyed a very successful year.
In numerous federal, state, and local races, third (or even fourth or fifth) choices on the ballot played a significant role in electoral outcomes—either as spoilers or, in some cases, as winners. It's a phenomenon the Democratic and Republican parties ignore at their peril.
California, with a fifth of the nation's voters, is a good case in point. In nine U.S. House races there, third-party or independent candidates took a higher percentage of the vote than the spread between the Republican and Democrat—suggesting that third parties may have stolen enough votes from one major party to deliver the election to the other. The same was true for two state Senate and four state Assembly races and for one of California's U.S. Senate races: Democrat Barbara Boxer beat Bruce Herschensohn 48 percent to 43 percent, but candidates from the American Independent, Peace and Freedom, and Libertarian parties got a combined vote of almost 10 percent.
Congressional races in Montana, Alaska, Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio followed a similar pattern. And in Maine's 2nd Congressional District, Green Party nominee John Carter took 10 percent of the vote—probably all from Democrat Pat McGowan, leaving GOP incumbent Olympia Snowe with 49 percent and a victory. Independent candidates for governor in West Virginia and Utah scored high; Utah's Merrill Cook came within nine points of winning.
Nationally, two governors—Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Walter Hickel of Alaska—represent third parties. And the National Conference of State Legislators reports that independent or third-party candidates were elected to state legislatures in eight states this year: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. New Hampshire has four Libertarian legislators, while the loose-knit Progressive Coalition claims five legislators in Vermont.
Some of the most effective "third-party" candidates were independents who had defected from the major parties. In Connecticut, first-term Rep. Gary Franks started 1992 in big trouble. Despite national renown as a conservative black Republican, Franks had nevertheless been blasted for not tending to his constituents' needs and for hiring a weak congressional staff. Democrats saw the Franks seat as ripe for the picking.
In a hard-fought primary contest, James Lawlor, a former Connecticut probate judge, defeated Lynn Taborsak for the Democratic nomination. Taborsak, a former state legislator strongly supported by the state's labor unions, then ran in the fall as the nominee of the Connecticut Party created by Weicker.
"All along, there was no question she would be a factor," says Larry Cohen, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies and a former writer for the Hartfort Courant. Like Franks—but unlike Democratic nominee Lawlor—Taborsak favors abortion rights. She wound up with 23 percent of the vote, splitting the anti-Franks vote and allowing the incumbent to slip back in with only 45 percent.
Something similar happened in Pennsylvania's 19th Congressional District. Republican incumbent Rep. William Goodling had bounced hundreds of checks on his House bank account, and many Republicans felt he had drifted away from conservative principles. (For example, he has opposed school choice.) Thomas Humbert, a former aide to Jack Kemp, ran on a Kempite "empowerment" agenda and split the anti-incumbent vote with Democrat Paul Kilker. As a result, Goodling won re-election with 45 percent.
What made third parties so successful? Ross Perot was a factor. But it's not "burying the lead" to greet the Perot explanation skeptically. He did enjoy surprising and astounding success, pulling the largest vote for an independent presidential candidate in recent political history and exceeding the 20-percent mark in 30 states. His performance will certainly attract greater attention to third parties and independents next time around.
But he didn't create the phenomenon, says Richard Winger, editor of the political newsletter Ballot Access News. "It had already started." In 1990, he reports, more than 7 percent of voters, on average, opted for a third choice in the highest office up for election in their state.
Winger attributes the appeal of alternative candidates to ongoing public disaffection from two-party centrism and government as usual. That would explain why both Libertarians and Greens did relatively well this year, despite their broad disagreements on most issues.
What was new this year was the media attention Perot helped bring independents and third parties. During the summer, when Perot's numbers were surging, newspapers felt obligated to devote more attention to independents and third-party candidates in their own area. Perot became a good news peg.
The 1992 success of alternative candidates may help put third parties in the media spotlight for future elections. In Georgia, Jim Hudson's spoiler role in the Senate race garnered attention for the Libertarian Party from CBS, CNN, NBC, and other major media organizations. "It was a surprise to a lot of people," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, so a relatively small vote total became a big state and national story. Black says the result may well lead Georgia to abolish its runoff law.
Despite the fun these third-party and independent candidates provided this year, there is reason to be cautious about predicting some huge wave of anti-"Republicrat" activism. Third parties still play a peripheral role in most election campaigns. Some parties, such as the Libertarians, regularly field candidates across the country. But most do not.
And some parties, including Perot's "United We Stand," are basically personality cults. Weicker's Connecticut Party, for example, "is a party in name only," the Yankee Institute's Cohen says. It endorsed mostly major-party candidates and had only a handful of truly independent nominees for office.
State idiosyncrasies can also create the illusion of influence. The Connecticut Party nominee was the first listed for each race on the state ballot this year because of Weicker's win in 1990—giving a helpful boost to its nominees and co-nominees.
Alternative candidates are best analyzed on a case-by-case basis. The needs, interests, and unique political history of a particular jurisdiction determine whether independents and third parties can play a significant role there. In Pennsylvania, Tom Humbert's name recognition and established ties in the district as a Republican activist helped propel his independent candidacy for Congress.
Alternative candidates also thrive when incumbents become immersed in scandal, such as Goodling's check bouncing in Pennsylvania. Charges of sexual harassment against Sen. Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii) helped Green Party nominee Linda Martin win 14 percent in the Senate race. And other candidates, such as former Gov. Evan Mecham of Arizona—who ran for Senate this year against Republican John McCain (another Keating Five incumbent) and Democrat Claire Sargent—rely on their own fame (or infamy) to attract votes. Mecham took 11 percent of the vote.
How will the two major parties react to alternative challenges? In many areas, they might follow another old political tradition and try to co-opt third-party voters. Georgia Republican Coverdell included Libertarian Hudson at a news conference kicking off his Senate runoff campaign and promised that if elected he would try to make ballot access easier for third parties.
More generally, a Democrat running in Maine might talk up environmental concerns to steal the Green Party's thunder. Or a suburban Republican could emphasize libertarian-sounding themes to dissuade the Libertarian Party from running a candidate—or, failing that, to attract most economically conservative, socially tolerant voters. California Assemblyman Tom McClintock's principled antispending record and outreach efforts persuaded the Libertarian Party not to run a candidate against him for the U.S. House; he nonetheless lost to incumbent Democrat Anthony Beilenson, who won 56 percent of the vote.
Obviously, major-party candidates will make judgment calls about whether a third-party challenger poses a significant risk to them. Similarly, third parties and independents will have to judge whether a major-party candidate will follow through on sympathetic campaign rhetoric—or whether an independent challenge would still be best. Sometimes not running a candidate (in other words, being co-opted) will exert the greatest influence on behalf of cherished principles, as the Progressive movement demonstrated earlier this century. For the moment, though, look for independents and third parties to choose the more exciting option.
Contributing Editor John Hood is the editor of Carolina Journal and a columnist for Spectator magazine in Raleigh.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Politics: The Third Way".