Opinion: A third-party run is a risk we can’t afford

Editor’s Note: James E. Clyburn (D-SC) currently serves as the assistant Democratic leader in the US House of Representatives. A former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Majority whip, he has represented South Carolina in Congress since 1993. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN. 

For most of my decades in the US House of Representatives, I have served in the minority. So, I am very familiar with political frustrations. As a leader in the House that sometimes — like now — functions poorly, I have railed against partisan intransigence.

James E. Clyburn - Donald Baker
James E. Clyburn - Donald Baker

As Democratic whip, I sometimes wished for a magic wand to cut through the chaos and gridlock. But magic isn’t real and claiming, as some do, that a third party could save the system is also not a reality-based solution. In fact, that approach has failed to improve anything in the past, and often made matters worse.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement that he won’t be seeking reelection and will be working to “mobilize the middle” of the political spectrum, has added fuel to the fire of speculation that the moderate Democrat, at times to the right of his party, will be launching a third-party presidential bid. If so, he would join the likes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein.

Other moderates, such as former Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and current Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie, who was reportedly approached to run as a third party candidate, see such an option as a “spoiler” or a “fool’s errand.” I agree — and history bears that out.

The outcomes of third-party runs have never been as promised, and no single political party has benefited from the results. In 1904, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was elected by a landslide. The progressive champion left office a very popular president. After losing faith in his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt mounted a third-party campaign in 1912.

Roosevelt, whose image would be carved into Mount Rushmore several decades later, entered that campaign as one of the most popular former presidents of all time. His fame grew when he survived being shot — at close range — and then proceeded to give a 90-minute speech. He later told a reporter he was “fit as a bull moose,” which became the moniker for his party.

But for all his popular appeal, Roosevelt finished the balloting far short of victory. That helped Woodrow Wilson defeat the GOP because the Roosevelt-Taft divide split the party’s vote. Roosevelt got only 88 electoral college votes, compared to Wilson’s 435. So, his third-party bid was not the magic elixir of progressive dreams, and his 88 electoral votes remain the high-water mark of third-party candidates.

In 1924, the Progressive Party won 13 electoral votes. In 1948 and 1968, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond and former Alabama Gov. George Wallace garnered 39 and 46 electoral votes, respectively, as third-party candidates. That’s it. No third-party candidate has won a single electoral vote since Wallace more than 50 years ago. Several have tried. In 1980, John Anderson, running on the notion that Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were both unusually unpopular, did well enough in the polls to make the debate stages. But in November, he ended up winning zero precincts.

In 1992, the year I was elected to Congress, Ross Perot ran the strongest third-party presidential race of the modern era. He was folksy and popular, and in the spring of 1992, he was polling ahead of both President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. This reflected deep voter frustration with budget deficits and the promises of those Perot called “career politicians.” But that discontent didn’t foreshadow a winning campaign. Perot failed to win a single electoral vote.

In the decades since, no third-party candidate has come close to winning – but several have had an enormous impact as spoilers. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran on the false claim that there were few differences between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore lost the decisive state of Florida by just 537 votes, a state that gave Nader 97,000. The Iraq War and the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts — among other things — would not have happened under a President Gore.

Jill Stein and Gary Johnson ran third-party campaigns in 2016 that arguably siphoned off enough votes to cost Hillary Clinton the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — and with them the presidency. I don’t remember all that they promised, but I know what they helped deliver: the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump.

What all these third-party candidates had in common was frustration. They ran on the idea that neither major party’s candidate was suitable to lead. In each case, the intent to run as a protest candidate was misguided and yielded unintended consequences, at times catastrophically so. Those making the claim that there is a unique opportunity for a third party success today are equally mistaken.

I have served in Congress under five presidents and have known them all. President Joe Biden is among the finest. He has guided this nation with extraordinary skill, deep foresight and abiding decency. His fatherly demeanor and compassionate tone do not engender the attractive headlines and quotable sound bite for which many seem to yearn. But his policies and practices are yielding spectacular results for individuals, their families, and communities.

Independent observers have noted that the claims third-party proponents are making are false. History foretells that a third-party candidacy would only serve as a spoiler and, I maintain, could fundamentally endanger our fragile democracy. That is a risk we simply cannot afford to take.

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