|L.A. TIMES / Opinion
The power of the other candidates: It's possible that a third-party
spoiler may tip the election.
By Douglas E. Schoen
THE PRESIDENTIAL election could well turn on a factor that has gotten
virtually no discussion this year -- the votes drawn by Libertarian
Bob Barr, Green Cynthia McKinney and independent Ralph Nader.
The most recent polls show a race too tight to call: Gallup tracking
from Sept. 23 showed Barack Obama up only three points with 47% to
John McCain's 44%. More interesting is a CNN/Opinion Research poll
released Sept. 22 that includes all five candidates for president.
McCain is at 45%, Obama is at 48%, and Barr, McKinney and Nader are
polling a combined 6% of the vote. (Nader captured 4% and Barr and
McKinney each got 1%.) In a close contest, the support for any of
these three could well decide which major party comes out ahead
nationally and in key swing states.
Indeed, the most recent state polling from CNN/Opinion Research to
include third-party candidates bears this point out. Taken earlier
this month, the poll found that in Missouri, where McCain had a
four-point lead, Nader had 3% and Barr had 2%. In New Hampshire, where
Obama had a five-point lead, 48% to McCain's 43%, Nader had 4% and
Barr had 2%. In Michigan, where Obama led McCain by only two points,
Nader has 6% and Barr 2%.
Other polls suggest an even more dramatic situation brewing with Barr,
McCain's biggest third-party concern. Zogby International polls last
month showed Barr approaching 11% in New Hampshire, 10% in Nevada and
8% in Ohio.
What accounts for such levels of support?
Most important, there is widespread -- and growing -- dissatisfaction
with the major parties in America. Even the initial rise of Obama was
in large part attributable to frustration with the political system
and response to his call for a nonpartisan outsider to change
Washington. McCain's ongoing resurgence similarly can be attributed,
at least in part, to his return to the maverick reformer message of
his 2000 campaign. Even the popularity of his running mate, Alaska
Gov. Sarah Palin, at its very core stems from a desire for new faces,
new ideas and alternatives.
However, Obama has had to go negative, McCain has flip-flopped time
and again from the maverick of old to the GOP's status quo, and the
Palin effect is wearing off as the governor's politics appear to be no
different from those inside the Beltway. Disenchanted voters are not
fooled for long by rhetoric. As the major-party candidates show their
true colors, many of these voters will start turning toward
There's also a wild card: Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who
sought the GOP nomination and has continued to attract fervent
supporters to his "Campaign for Liberty" attacking big government and
the two-party system. After months of bickering with the Libertarian
Barr, last week he threw his support behind yet another alternative
party candidate, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party. With Barr
having raised nearly $1 million and becoming a growing presence in
many states, adding a Paul-supported Baldwin to the mix could be
disastrous for McCain, who could lose votes to both alternative
A third-party candidate in an election this close doesn't need
double-digit support to be a spoiler. History has shown that
third-party candidates can gain a large percentage, as in the case of
Ross Perot, who reached close to 20% of the vote in 1992, and George
Wallace, who almost gained 14% of the vote in 1968. But neither of
those had the impact of Nader's single-digit percentage in the 2000
election. Nader's 90,000 votes in Florida were a crucial factor in an
election that came down to George W. Bush's victory in Florida by
slightly more than 500 votes. [likely, this was less crucial than the
GOP repression of votes and refusal to allow a full recount. -- JD]
To be clear, this election is coming down to the wire, as it did in
2000, making real the possibility of a third-party spoiler tipping the
election one way or the other. As the polls stand now, with Obama
holding slight leads nationally and in many swing states, Nader's 4%
could siphon off enough votes to thrust McCain into the White House.
That said, if Barr steals [sic] 8% of the Ohio vote from McCain, Obama
will almost certainly win the presidency.
So in the waning days of the election, it's not the biggest poll
percentages that demand scrutiny, but the smallest ones. Because it
could turn out that the crucial role in the 2008 election will be
played by a candidate no one is talking about.
Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster, is the author of "Declaring
Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System." He
was an advisor to President Clinton from 1994 to 2000.