This weekend news broke that former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is exploring a potential independent bid for president. A Morning Consult poll shows his appeal is at this point limited to about 15%, but it's early. Both major party nominations are in play, and with billions of dollars and a proven record in business and politics, Bloomberg could be a formidable candidate after introducing himself in ads, media coverage and the debates to the many voters who don't know much about him.
Bloomberg isn't alone, of course. Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb has been floating the potential of an independent bid, some suggest Donald Trump might run as an independent if failing to win the Republican nomination, and the Greens and Libertarians are among minor parties who will field candidates on the ballot in most states. More voter choice is healthy for our politics, and better reflects the diversity of opinion and interests in modern America. Although our antiquated "plurality" voting system is far less equipped to handle better choice than proven alternatives like ranked choice voting, some analysts like Norm Ornstein in the Washington Post are too quick to dismiss the chances of an independent winning within our current voting rules.
Ornstein in his oped focuses on alleged barriers created by the Electoral College. He postulates that if an independent candidate and the major party nominees each won about a third of the vote, "no candidate would come close to the majority of 270 required, under the Constitution, for victory," thereby throwing the choice of president to Congress and its bizarre rules of the Senate picking the vice-president based on one Senator, one vote and the House picking the president based on one vote per state delegation.
But Ornstein's "nightmare" is overheated. In order to give an idea of what might happen when a presidential election features a strong third candidate, FairVote simulated the results of a better performance by Texan Ross Perot when in 1992 he earned 18.9% of the vote against winner Bill Clinton (43%) and Republican incumbent George Bush (37.5%).
Perot's campaign was an unusual one. He gained ballot access in states across the country, then suddenly suspended his campaign in the summer when his poll numbers declined before restarting his campaign in September. Despite his off-putting campaign suspension, he still ran reasonably well, including helping to deny a majority popular vote win in 49 out of 50 states. Still, he did not come to close to winning any electoral votes.
But that would have changed if Perot's vote total had approached what his poll numbers had been early in the year. In fact. Perot would have won the White House and an Electoral College landslide of 343 electoral votes if he had doubled his vote share to 37.82% by doubling his vote share in each state and his increased vote share came equally at the expense of Clinton (down to 33.55%) and Bush (down to 28.0%).
In fact, Perot would have won an Electoral College majority of 313 electoral votes if his vote share had risen under these assumptions by just 16% to 34.91%, again coming equally from Clinton (down to 35.01%) and Bush (down to 29.45%). Notably under this scenario, Perot would have won his Electoral College majority even while losing the popular vote to Clinton. See our Perot 1992 simulator spreadsheet showing the different scenarios.
If the vote had been that close, there are scenarios that would reflect Ornstein's concern. For example, if Perot's vote share rose only 15.1% to 34%, he would have won 241 electoral votes, sending the contest to Congress. There also would have been no Electoral College majority if Perot's vote had risen 16% to 34.9%, but he had drawn 60% of his vote from would-be Bush voters and only 40% from would-be Clinton voters.
But the fact is that there's no reason that an independent couldn't rise to a larger share of the popular vote. Independents have won several elections for governor in the past 25 years when competing against two strong major party nominees, such as when:
- Lincoln Chafee in 2010 won 36.1% In Rhode Island against 33.6% for the Republican and 23% for the Democrat;
- Angus King in 1994 won 35.4% in Maine against 33.8% for the Democrat and 23.1% for the Republican;
- Jesse Ventura in 1998 won 37% in Minnesota to 34.3% for the Republican and 28.1% for the Democrat.;
- Walter Hickel won 38.9% in Alaska in 1990 against 30.9% for the Democrat and 26.2% for the Republican; and
- Lowell Weicker won 40.4% in Connecticut in 1990 against 37.5% for the Republican and 20.7% for the Republican.
Furthermore, when one major party's nominee becomes seen as a "spoiler" and implodes, independents can run even better. Consider these recent Senate races: Angus King in 2012 in Maine won 52.9% over a Republican (30.7%) and Democrat (13.2%), while Joe Lieberman (running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary) in 2006 in Connecticut won 49.7% over a Democrat (39.7%) and Republican (9.6%). In addition Lisa Murkowski (running as a write-in after losing the Republican primary) in 2012 in Alaska also won with 39.5% over a Republican with 35.5% and a Democrat with 23.5%.
If Perot in 1992 had won similar popular vote victories, he almost certainly would easily have avoided Ornstein's "nightmare" and earned a clear victory in the Electoral College. Clearly a strong independent or third party candidate could win in 2016 if -- and this remains the big question -- such a candidate can come to be seen as viable and earn more than 35 percent of the vote.