In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt launched what is considered to be the most successful third-party presidential bid in US history.
Frustrated with the path of William H Taft, his chosen successor, Roosevelt decided to take another shot at the presidency having already occupied the White House from 1901 to 1909. So he created his own Progressive Party, commonly known as the Bull Moose Party, and put himself on the top of the ticket.
Roosevelt did better than his former friend Taft, but he split the Republican vote and handed the election to their Democratic opponent Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt carried just six states and received 27.4 per cent of the popular vote.
The Teddy Roosevelt story is likely to weigh on the mind of Michael Bloomberg as the billionaire former New York mayor contemplates whether to launch his own third-party presidential bid— a decision friends say he expects to make by early March.
Those who know Mr Bloomberg say he will only enter the race if Hillary Clinton fails to secure the Democratic nomination. A presidential contest between Bernie Sanders, who is viewed by some Democrats as too leftwing, and Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, seen as too far right for some Republicans, could create an opening for a more centrist candidate such as Mr Bloomberg, the thinking goes.
While this might make sense in theory, history is not on Mr Bloomberg’s side.
“We have always seen third-party candidates not as much as potential winners but as spoilers and about who they are going to hurt,” says Charlie Cook, the political commentator and publisher of The Cook Political Report, an online newsletter.
A select number of third-party candidates with varying strengths and weaknesses have run for the presidency over the past hundred years. George Wallace, the former Alabama governor, carried five southern states in 1968 as nominee of the American Independent Party, drawing support from white voters angry about desegregation and the rise of the civil rights movement.
John B Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois, won 6.6 per cent of the popular vote but no electoral votes when he ran as an independent candidate in 1980. Ronald Reagan, who beat Mr Anderson to the Republican nomination, won the election by a landslide.
In 1992, the year George H W Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, billionaire candidate Ross Perot won 18.9 per cent of the popular vote but no electoral votes. And in 2000, the activist and environmentalist Ralph Nader secured 2.7 per cent of the popular vote, including more than 97,000 votes in Florida, an outcome some believe put George W Bush in office rather than Al Gore.
All these presidential bids were different, but the difficulty in running a third-party campaign remains the same. Since voter registration laws were introduced in the early 1900s, smaller political parties have struggled to get their candidates’ name on state ballots — a cumbersome ordeal that varies state by state but which requires significant funds and time and an army of paid staff or volunteers.
Barry Burden, professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison who has studied third-party runs, notes how it is slightly easier for an independent candidate to get on the ballot in Wisconsin than it is in, for instance, North Carolina. But independent candidates often have to collect more signatures and pay higher fees than the presidential candidates from the two main parties.
Another hurdle is the difficulty in garnering enough popular support to appear in the televised debates— “free exposure” that “sends a signal to voter that you are a viable candidate”, says Mr Burden. Currently, an independent candidate must win 15 per cent public support in the polls to make it on to the debate stage. The last third-party candidate to appear in a TV debate was Mr Perot in 1992.
Despite these obstacles, some believe that if there is a third-party candidate to break the mould it would be Mr Bloomberg in 2016. With a net worth of $36bn, according to Forbes magazine, he has the money to fund the run and would be campaigning in an election that has so far defied predictions.
“I am a super-sceptic when it comes to third-party runs. They always fail by giant margins,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think-tank. “But there may be in this [election] cycle one and only one opening.”
That opportunity would be if both parties selected non-traditional nominees: the socialist Mr Sanders for the Democrats, and the Tea Party favourite Mr Cruz or the pugnacious Mr Trump for the Republicans.
This is the only scenario that Mr Bennett believes would tempt a pragmatist such as Mr Bloomberg to enter the race. The possibility of that happening? “I would put it at around 2 per cent,” Mr Bennett says.
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