The upcoming presidential election was never going to be an easy one for the Republicans to win. As “time for change” fever takes over, it’s difficult to succeed a popular incumbent, much less one as reviled as President Bush.
Still, not that long ago, things looked hopeful for the GOP. The Democrats are likely to choose Hillary Clinton, a candidate with some of the highest negative ratings of any non-incumbent nominee in modern presidential politics. What’s more, there’s a decent chance the Republicans will nominate someone from outside the Sun Belt, who would have unusual appeal in the Democratic base. That’s why the margin is much closer when Rudy Giuliani runs head-to-head with Clinton than it is in polls that pit an unnamed Democrat against an unnamed Republican.
But events are conspiring to eviscerate any chance the Republicans have of winning next year. Simply put, the party is fissuring, so if three or four — not two — major candidates end up on the fall ballot, the Democrats will win in a walk.
Every 12 years or so, a new independent or third-party candidate gains momentum during an election cycle. Almost always, when these candidacies arise, it’s the incumbent party that loses the election. In 2000 with Ralph Nader, in 1992 with H. Ross Perot, in 1980 with John Anderson, in 1968 with George Wallace, and on back through modern-American political history, the lesson of third parties is twofold: they never win and, because their ire is often directed at the status quo — thus the party holding power — they damage the candidate of the incumbent party.
It certainly won’t help matters for the GOP that this year’s splinter candidates will probably come from nominally Republican ranks. The media has focused on New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he’s actually the unlikeliest of the three to make a third-party bid. The likeliest is current GOP candidate Ron Paul, who already has one independent general-election run under his belt as a Libertarian (in 1988, when he garnered just 0.5 percent of the vote) and would have no trouble making another. As this year’s version of Perot, Paul’s already shown unexpected grassroots appeal and fundraising ability. And he’s so far refused to say he would support the party’s nominee, which is always a telling sign.
Then there’s the Religious Right, some of whose adherents have put the GOP on notice that, if Giuliani — the party’s strongest general-election candidate — receives the nomination, they, too, would consider going the independent route. (Some later backed off the threat, but it’s still there.)
As Perot discovered in 1992, when the major parties secure their nominees early, the political press has nothing to do for six months, so it devotes its energy to building up independent candidacies. That will happen again next year. And, if Paul, Bloomberg, or a far-right candidate makes a run, that candidate would only have to pick up a percentage point or two in such key swing states as Pennsylvania and Ohio to make a Giuliani victory improbable. (Never mind a victory for Fred Thompson — as a presidential candidate, Thompson would be the second coming of Bob Dole, a nominee who holds the base but nothing more.) Equally important, these challenges would make it much harder for Republicans to focus on the deficiencies of the Democratic candidate.