For the first time since 1912, the United States could be headed for a presidential general election with four major candidates on the ballot. And despite fears about multi-candidate races in the century since, this could be constructive for the political system.
In this cycle, there’s been considerable speculation that its polarization and unusual events would lead to a prominent third-party run. Flirtations with Michael Bloomberg have ended, but discussion continues about a Donald Trump independent bid if he believes he’s been unfairly denied the GOP nomination.
Yet not much consideration has surfaced about another possible scenario: an independent run by Sen. Bernie Sanders. This has gained plausibility as Hillary Clinton and Sanders have amped up their fight before New York’s Democratic primary.
If Sanders keeps piling up wins, including an upset in New York tomorrow, he could still be short of the Democratic delegates needed. Feeling unfairly blocked by Clinton and the party, and with plenty of supporters and campaign donors, Sanders could run independently. He would see his revolution having a chance of succeeding in a crowded race.
This election has had so many unlikely twists that a multi-candidate fall campaign wouldn’t be out of line.
A four-way race could be cleansing. Voters would have a broad choice of candidates and ideas, with Trump and Sanders facing Democratic nominee Clinton and a GOP nominee such as Ted Cruz, John Kasich or Paul Ryan. Large audiences for televised debates recently have shown interest in multicandidate formats, and four-way debates would have unusual energy.
In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, prominent third-party presidential campaigns were common. The impact of a third major candidate was memorable sound bites (such as Ross Perot’s “I’ll be like a mechanic who’s under the hood.”), and elevation of issues such as campaign finance reform and the environment. No spoilers emerged and no noticeable lasting harm was done to the political system.
The campaign of 1912 was something far different, yet the result was positive. Incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft was challenged by former ally and ex-president Theodore Roosevelt on the Bull Moose progressive line, Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic ticket and Eugene V. Debs as a Socialist.
The contest wasn’t confined to the general election. Democrats had a convention scrap in Baltimore that made what’s being predicted for the GOP in Cleveland look mundane. Champ Clark of Missouri, the speaker of the House, was the front-runner, but couldn’t get a majority. Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, didn’t win until the 46th ballot after many machinations, including those orchestrated by William Jennings Bryan.
Republicans couldn’t avoid a schism. Roosevelt broke with Taft at the convention and later was nominated under a progressive banner. In the general election, the popular vote was split. Wilson led with 42 percent, Roosevelt won 27 percent, Taft 23 percent and Debs 6 percent. Wilson overshadowed the other candidates in the Electoral College vote.
The lesson of 1912, for all the political chaos at the time, was that the election worked in forging national consensus. While Wilson didn’t get a majority of the popular vote, he had a strong win and plenty of room to govern. In that way, another four-way race in 2016 could be seen as a way to shine some light in a presidential year that has seemed quite dark so far.
Noel Rubinton, a former Newsday Viewpoints editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence.