A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Encouraged by near universal disgust with both Republicans and Democrats, prominent activists hope to organize a credible third party alternative for the upcoming presidential campaign. The ambitious outfit “Americans Elect” has reportedly raised $30 million and secured ballot positions in ten states for its proposed bi-partisan ticket – with a presidential candidate from one major party, and vice presidential nominee from the other. Most importantly, polling data consistently shows powerful public yearning for new electoral alternatives: a majority of respondents told Gallup we need a third party next year and a staggering 81% expressed dissatisfaction with the current performance of our federal government.
This mounting passion to escape the confines of the big party duopoly will, however, produce only more frustration and despair when it collides with one unassailable (and unavoidable) obstacle: the Constitution of the United States.
That Constitution mandates that public opinion doesn’t determine the next president; the Electoral College does. Hundreds of millions of voters won’t decide who controls the White House; 538 Electors will.
This means that it counts for nothing if a third party contender wins a significant portion of the popular vote because the only way to win the presidency is carrying enough states to win a majority of the Electors. In 1992, Ross Perot became the most successful independent candidate in recent history by spending more than $12 million of his own money, campaigning in 16 states and drawing an impressive 19% of the total vote – while racking up a perfect zero in the Electoral College. Though he finished second in two states (Maine and Utah, with a grand total of nine electoral votes) he didn’t come close to winning either state, or placing any points on the one scoreboard that mattered.
The last time a third party candidate registered any Electoral College support came 44 years ago, when the racial backlash campaign of Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, carried five Southern states. He earned 46 Electoral Votes but did nothing to block Richard Nixon’s triumph in carrying 32 states worth 301 Electors.