Ralph Nader and Bob Barr couldn't gain any electoral traction on Tuesday. But in honor of their campaigns, let's look back at some notable third-party candidates.
1. John B. Anderson, 1980: Doonesbury's Choice
For most of the century, third-party candidates attracted the disaffected fringe voter. John Anderson—until his 1980 run an unknown Republican congressman from Illinois—drew from the center.
Anderson began his career as a conservative, but gradually became a progressive on social issues and foreign policy. Anderson was the first Republican congressman to call for Richard Nixon's resignation. By 1980, after dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, he was enough of a maverick to declare an independent candidacy.
"He is running in what he has called a "˜crazy' year, one in which the Democrats and Republicans seem about to nominate candidates so unpopular that more than half the potential voters have been telling pollsters they wish there were another choice," Time magazine wrote that spring, referring to Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan.
Anderson made an appearance on Saturday Night Live and received the endorsement of cartoon character Mike Doonesbury. "He has become a cult figure on campuses and with show-biz liberals," Time wrote "That is the strangest irony of all, because Anderson is just about the reverse of a trendy personality."
Reagan won the presidency with just over half the popular vote. Anderson finished a distant third with 5,719,437 vote—or 7 percent of the popular vote—and then dropped out of sight.
He spent the following years as a visiting professor—Stanford University, University of Illinois College of Law, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, Oregon State University, University of Massachusetts. He now is a visiting professor at the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University. Anderson also is chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy and was president of the World Federalist Association, which lobbied to strengthen the institutions of the United Nations and for the creation of an international criminal court.
2. George Wallace, 1968: The "Law & Order" Candidate
After being elected Governor of Alabama in 1962, in a speech written by a known Ku Klux Klansman, George Wallace famously declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." The next year, the Democrat Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block two African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.
By 1968, the country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War, and reeling from anti-war protests and race riots. Much of the country wanted a president who would restore "law and order." Running against former Vice President Richard Nixon (Republican) and sitting VP Hubert Humphrey (Democrat), the bulldog Wallace tapped into a deep well of white disaffection in the North as well as the South. Macho movie star John Wayne reportedly inscribed a check to Wallace with the words, "Sock it to 'em, George."
Nixon won the election, but Wallace received 9,906,473 votes—5.53 percent of the popular vote—and overwhelming majorities in Alabama and Mississippi. He took 46 electoral votes.
Alabama reelected Wallace governor in 1970. In 1972, he began a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination, campaigning against school busing. The day before he won the Michigan and Maryland primaries, Wallace was shot and paralyzed while stumping at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland.
The assassination attempt ended Wallace's campaign. He was reelected Alabama governor in 1974 and the next year announced another bid for the presidency. But another Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, drew Wallace's regional support and he dropped out of the race.
Wallace was barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term as governor. In 1978, he was divorced from his second wife. (His first wife had succeeded him as governor in 1966 and died of cancer in 1968. A third marriage ended in divorce in 1987.)
Time effected a change on the old segregationist. In 1979, he contacted civil rights leader John Lewis—who was severely beaten by Wallace's state troopers during a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965—and a number of other African Americans to ask their forgiveness for his past actions. He returned to the governor's office in 1982, on the strength of Alabama's majority black vote. And in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he confessed that his opposition to school integration was wrong.
Wallace retired at the end of his term in January 1987 and died in 1998, at age 79.
3. Eugene Debs, 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920: The 5 Timers Club
Eugene Debs had been a railway union organizer in the 1890s. While in prison for his union activities, he read the works of Karl Marx for the first time. In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, which became known as the Wobblies.
In the 1912 election—Debs' fourth campaign for the presidency—Debs won 901,551 votes, just short of 6 percent of the popular vote, but a distant fourth behind Taft. Debs finished third in his 1920 run, with 913,693 votes—3.41 percent of the popular vote. That isn't bad, considering the Socialist leader was in prison at the time.
An opponent of America's participation in World War I—he saw it as a boon to capitalists—Debs had been jailed in 1918 for making a speech against the war. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to interfere with the war effort.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and his citizenship was revoked. Debs appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. In his majority opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared free speech does not include "the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater."
In 1921, President Warren Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served. Some 50,000 followers welcomed him home on his release. He died of heart failure in 1926, at age 70. His citizenship was restored posthumously in 1976.
4. Norman Thomas, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948: The Losingest Candidate
Socialist Norman Thomas was perhaps America's losingest third-party candidate, but he lived long enough to become an American institution. Of his six consecutive runs for president, his best showing was in 1932, when he received 884,781 votes.
He was the Socialist successor to Eugene Debs, but unlike Debs, Thomas did not have a working-class background. He began his career as a clergyman, the son and grandson of clergymen.
Today he probably would be called a social democrat, and his radical platform—low-cost housing, the five-day work week, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, minimum-wage laws and the prohibition of child labor—were absorbed into President Roosevelt's New Deal.
Thomas was neither a Marxist (Leon Trotsky quipped, "Norman Thomas called himself a socialist as a result of a misunderstanding") nor was he satisfied with the two major parties. (Anticipating Nader, he called it the "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" choice.) He opposed America's entry into World War II, protested the internment of Japanese Americans during the war, and denounced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the war's end.
After his final presidential run in 1948, Thomas maintained his membership in the Socialist Party. "I enjoy sitting on the sidelines and Monday-morning quarterbacking on other people's performances," he said. He wrote several books in the 1950s and "˜60s and pursued efforts toward international peace. On his 80th birthday, in 1964, he received a check for $17,500, "raised by the dwindling Socialist faithful," Time reported. "Thomas said he would divvy up the money among his favorite left-wing causes: "˜It won't last long, because every organization I'm connected with is going bankrupt.'" He died in December 1968, at age 84.
5. H. Ross Perot, 1992, 1996: He Had $3 Billion Sitting Back Home
If Washington were the problem, and if politicians lacked the mettle to lead, the solution had to come from a straight-talking political outsider who had proved his leadership qualities by running a successful corporation and making himself wealthy in the process.
In 1992, 19,742,267 Americans agreed that man was Texas data processing tycoon Henry Ross Perot, who focused his campaign on trade and campaign finance reform. America's industrial base was shrinking quickly, and Perot warned of "a giant sucking sound" of American jobs moving south to Mexico if the North American Free Trade Agreement were enacted.
The 19 percent of the popular vote the Texas billionaire received was enough to deny reelection to Republican President George H.W. Bush and send Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House.
How'd Perot make his fortune? He began his business career as an IBM salesman, founded Electronic Data Systems in 1962, and sold the company to General Motors in 1984 for $2.5 billion. He resigned as EDS chairman in 1986 and founded the competing Perot Systems two years later.
Buoyed by his strong showing in 1992, Perot established the Reform Party in 1995 to institutionalize a platform calling for balancing the federal budget, overhauling the health-care and income-tax systems, and placing restrictions on lobbying.
As the party's 1996 nominee for president, Perot received 8,085,402 votes, or 8 percent of the popular vote. In 2000, Perot declined to run again and worked to undermine conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan's candidacy on the Reform ticket. In the general election, Buchanan took 0.4 percent of the popular vote and dealt the Reform party a death blow.
At 79, Perot remains chairman emeritus and a board member of Perot Systems. His pet cause is securing special medical care for injured members of the U.S. military. He also heads the Hillwood real estate firm in Dallas, owns the money management firm Perot Investment, and is principal investor in the intellectual property fund IP Advantage. He is the author of seven books and, according to the Perot Systems website, was named by MSNBC.com as one of "History's Ten Greatest Entrepreneurs" of the last 1,500 years.
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There have been many more notable third-party candidates, including Teddy Roosevelt (in 1912), Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, "Fighting Bob" La Follette, James Birney, Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond. We'll save those stories for 2012.