It looks like I’m not the only one speculating about the possibility of a third party challenge. Thomas Friedman appears convinced that 2012 will be the year of the third-party candidate, while Nate Silver admits that the odds are not as long as they seem.
Silver does an excellent job of highlighting the particular circumstances that make the possibility of a serious presidential bid more likely than usual. But while 2012 may produce a strong contender, if we follow my previous analogy – that this is 1854 – then we might expect that it is in 2016 that produces the vital shift.
Even though the parties’ potential candidates may seem relatively weak for 2012 – if Obama’s popularity ratings don’t increase and if the Republicans field an extreme candidate like Sarah Palin – party identity is a long-standing trait that will be hard to adjust. It will take time to shift these allegiances and any serious third party will need to demonstrate their long-term viability and even their ability to govern to be taken seriously.
However, there are many differences between 1854 and 2010, especially in the way politics works. 150 years ago, candidates relied on their parties for nominations and support, but today that is less true. Perot’s candidacy, one of the most serious launched, was largely self-funded. And, as Silver notes, the possibility for gaining corporate funding and support is even higher today. So a third-party presidential candidate might do well on their own, even without a party behind them.
Of course, my analogy requires that a third party emerge in this election cycle and I suggest that with reform and focus, the Tea Party could be it. If their candidates actually win seats – rather than primaries – and show they are able to govern, we might expect to see a Tea Party candidate for president in 2012 – and perhaps more importantly, in 2016.