Salena Zito

The only time in modern history that a third-party candidate got more votes than a major-party candidate was in 1912.

Nearly 100 years later, Republican John McCain, who lost his own White House bid, suggests voters are angry enough with Washington to do that again.

Each generation arrogantly assumes the events of its lifetime are “firsts.” Yet 2012’s election will have nothing over 1912’s electoral drama.

The one thing both elections have in common is record dissatisfaction with both parties.

Four main candidates ran in 1912: a Republican president (William Howard Taft), a former Republican president turned “progressive” (Teddy Roosevelt), a Democrat (Woodrow Wilson) nominated only after 46 ballots and the eventual support of populist William Jennings Bryan, and a Socialist (Eugene Debs).

Third-party candidates generally fill the gap when the two major parties don’t respond to a given set of needs, said Larry Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve governor.

“I think McCain is right – that this is a natural time for third parties to channel public anger at Wall Street and Washington,” Lindsey added.

Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 are third-party candidates who came nowhere close to winning but are credited with costing other candidates the White House.

Yet the 2000 race was so controversial because of Florida, not Nader, according to presidential historian Eldon Eisenach: “If (Al) Gore had simply won his own state, he would have won (the election).”

In 1992, however, Perot not only received 19% of the vote but forced both candidates to address the national debt, Eisenach said.

While it is provocative to imagine voters throwing both parties out of Washington, Republicans and Democrats clearly have stacked the deck against third-party candidates. Add to that their allies in the press, said Christopher Kelley, an expert in U.S. elections.

Since we do not have a national ballot, a candidate must get on each state’s ballot, which means obtaining anywhere from a couple thousand to hundreds of thousands of signatures. And a candidate usually must receive a certain percentage of the vote – 15% in many states – or risk being removed from future ballots and forced to gather signatures all over again.

“Furthermore, winner-take-all elections – versus proportional representation – offer no incentives to candidates who cannot come in first,” said Kelley.

The press refuses to cover most third-party candidates or, if it does, covers them in a highly negative way – as cranks or troublemakers – which does nothing for their public standing. It does so even though “the American public fully supports the option for a third-party choice,” said Kelley.

Howard Dean, a former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont governor, likes the competitiveness and ideas that come from third parties. “But they should start on local levels, where they can really effect change in a very real way,” he said.

Dean readily admits the atmosphere is ripe now for political revolt: “America views Washington as being incredibly out of touch – especially the Middle Class.”

His advice for Barack Obama: Stay out of Washington and keep talking about jobs.

Democrat and retired Navy admiral Joe Sestak, a former eastern Pennsylvania congressman who shocked the Washington establishment by upsetting U.S. Senator Arlen Specter in 2010, says he initially considered running as an independent.

After months of consideration (and the Obama White House’s controversial request that he forego a primary challenge), Sestak decided to ran as a Democrat. He beat Specter but lost narrowly in the general election to Republican Pat Toomey.

Sestak thinks Obama initially had that populist Jacksonian spirit that attracts independents, Republicans and Democrats who will go for a third-party candidate.

“But he did not retain the breadth of the people’s support, because there was too much focus on Washington politics instead of using the heft of people behind him as the best influencer of needed policy changes,” he said.

One strategist for Democrats, who spends most of his time with Main Street voters beyond Washington’s beltway, thinks “2012 is a year for an outsider/independent. But it would have to be one who can self-finance while simultaneously having the appeal to attract motivated individuals that will get him or her on the ballot in all the key states.”

A tall – but not impossible – order to fill.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.