Although citizens of the United States have the opportunity to vote for many
different offices at the national, state, and local levels, the election of the president of
the United States every four years is the focal point of the American political process.
The American political system has maintained a two-party system since its inception.
Political scientists argue that a two-party system is the most stable and efficient
means of running a democratic nation as a mono-party system leads toward tyranny,
and a multi-party system creates over-diversification and gridlock (Mazmanian 6). The
Constitution of the United States does not in any way limit the structure of the political
system to two parties. In fact, there has been no presidential election where there
were only two candidates; however, third-party candidates are rarely represented in a
majority of the states, and those that were on the ballot in a majority of states have
never been successful. However, on a few occasions, third party candidates have
been able to make a significant impact on the presidential election process such as
George Wallace in 1968 and H. Ross Perot in 1992.
Through nineteenth century there was little deviation from the traditional two-
party system. Until then, political candidates were utterly dependant upon the political
infrastructure of an established party for their campaigns. Until the development of
mass media technologies, including radio and television, political candidates had no
direct means of communicating with the public and were thus dependant on the
communications systems of the major parties. Thus, third party movements lacked
the capabilities to run an effective campaign against the major parties.
However, mass media has changed the scope of the election process and
brought about the demise of the major political parties (Robinson 147). Candidates
who run a television dominated campaign have hurt their parties in a number of ways.
The media specialists who manage such campaigns tend to be loyal to a candidate
rather than to the candidate's party; as a result, the campaign supports a single
candidate and not the entire ticket of the party. In addition, the heavy reliance on
television allows a candidate to reach voters directly, thereby weakening the traditional
function of the party as an information and communication body acting as an
intermediary between the candidate and the voters.
Other developments have served to weaken the role of the party in the
presidential campaign. The growth of computerized "direct-mail fundraising
techniques" and "computerized e-mail" have encroached on activities traditionally
performed by the political party (Robinson 150). Also, recent reforms in the areas of
campaign financing and delegate selection to the nominating conventions have made
the party less significant with respect to fund-raising and candidate selection
(Robinson 151). The decreasing role of the political party in the presidential campaign
and the increasing ability of the candidates themselves to provide their own publicity
has brought about the beginning of a new political era in which the dominance of the
major parties is questionable, and the potential for a non-affiliated candidate to mount
a competitive campaign is very realistic.
In theory, it is possible for a completely independent candidate to be elected to
the presidency, provided the candidate is highly competent, charismatic, eloquent, and
photogenic, and the candidate is running against relatively weak candidates of the
major parties (Mazmanian 21). However, at this time, political analysts stipulate that
the chances of this happening are slim because a majority of Americans are
xenophobic enough to be wary of the unknown candidate.
An independent candidate can, however, have a dramatic impact on the
outcome of the election without actually winning. Simply by running, a strong
independent candidate can create problems for the major candidate whose views are
most similar his own. First, the independent can either split the vote causing the
opposing major candidate to win, or second, the independent can withdraw and give
their support and potentially a significant voting block, to one of the major candidates
in exchange for a change in the candidate's platform to include the independent's
views. These influences by an independent, third party candidate were demonstrated
in both the 1968 and 1992 elections.
George Wallace, independent candidate of the newly formed American
Independent Party, took 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 election, and won
seventy electoral votes in the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and
Georgia, and making him the most successful independent to run for the presidency.
The American Independent Party was a "white supremacist . . . , ultra-conservative"
(Mazmanian 130) organization founded in reaction to the 1960's civil rights movement
and the Supreme Court's overturning of "separate, but equal" (Plessy v. Ferguson)
statute that forced integration. George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, was a
pronounced racist who became nationally known by refusing to allow the integration of
Alabama schools in spite of a federal order to do so. Wallace ran his campaign on a
platform of state's rights and increased defense spending and gained a large following
of voters in southern states. The political purpose of Wallace's campaign was to force
one or both of the major party candidates, Nixon and Humphery, to a more
conservative position on the issue of state's rights. Wallace wanted the federal
government to give the states the power to decide whether of not to desegregate
(Mazmanian 89). However, neither Nixon or Humphery were willing to make
concessions to Wallace, and this resulted in the closest presidential election in the
history of the United States. Nixon came out on top, but he won over Humphery by
only 0.7% the popular vote (about 500,000 out of 70 million votes) (Mazmanian 201).
The votes that Wallace controlled could easily have reversed the outcome of the 1968
election if Humphery had been willing to assimilate Wallace's platform into his own.
Thus third-party politics had a major effect on the 1968 election.
H. Ross Perot became, in 1992, the second most successful independent
candidate to run for the presidency. Although Perot received nineteen percent (19%)
of the popular vote, (six percent more than Wallace) Perot failed to win any individual
states and therefore received no electoral votes (Jackson). Ross Perot ran a platform
based solely on economic change. Although this platform captured the interest of a
large number of Americans in a short time, his failure to define his position on other
issues or to particularize his plans for cleaning up the economy lead to his downfall in
the latter part of the campaign (Murr 71). The political effect of Ross Perot's
involvement in the 1992 campaign was to force the major candidates to address the
voters more directly and to make them state their positions on controversial issues.
This, and Perot's repeated attacks on the failed "trickle-down economics", placed the
less eloquent incumbent, George Bush, at a marked disadvantage (Murr 73). Also,
Perot was identified as a conservative and thus he forced a split in the conservative
vote away from Bush. Perot then voiced limited support for Clinton towards the end
of the campaign which switched some "traditional Republican votes" to the Democratic
party (Goldman 55 ). Thus, Ross Perot contributed considerably to Clinton's
George Wallace and Ross Perot are two diametrically opposed characters.
Wallace ran for president for a less than noble cause - to protect the interests of racist
southern whites like himself. Conversely, Perot ran for president because he wanted
to bring the American public back into the political system and to "clean-up the mess
in Washington" (Robinson 78). However, these two men share a commonality. Both
fielded a relatively successful presidential campaign that greatly affected the outcome
of the election. Also, they both caused a shift in power away from the incumbent
The Perot campaign also had long term affects. Perot managed to convince
the American people that it was "time to get rid of the old politicians and old way of
doing things" (Robinson 36). Perot's support of Clinton led many voters to believe that
they were doing just that, but when after two years Clinton had failed to pass any of
the major legislation of his campaign platform, the American voters backlashed with a
landslide Republican victory in the 1994 Congressional elections.
The presidential election is the focal point of the American political process. It
is, in essence, a decision made by the citizens of the United States to determine the
course of action for the nation for a four year span and is arguably the most important
recurring event in the life of the nation. The ability of a third-party faction to affect the
outcome of the election can be a very powerful and dangerous force. Indeed, Ross
Perot and George Wallace had a profound effect on the outcome of the elections they
participated in, but Perot had a more lasting effect. Ross Perot proved to the world
that it is quite plausible for a completely independent candidate to "walk into center
stage and steal the show" (Robinson 141). With the decline of the political parties and
their role in the campaign process, the possibilities for more successful independent
candidates can only increase. Eventually an independent will go farther than swaying
the outcome. One day an independent will win.
Brown, Gene. H. Ross Perot: Texas Billionaire. Vero Beach: Rourke
Enterprises, Inc, 1993.
Goldman, Peter and Tom Mathews. "The Manhattan Project". Newsweek (Special
Election Issue) November/December, 1992. pp.40-57
Jackson, David. "3rd party chances gauged" Dallas Morning News. November 5, 1992.
Mazmanian, Daniel A. Third Parties in Presidential Elections. New York: Franklin
Murr, Andrew. "Superhero". Newsweek (Special Election Issue) November/December,
Robinson, James W., ed. Ross Perot Speaks Out. Rocklin: Prima Publishing, 1992.