Three’s a crowd

Three’s a crowd – General Colin Powell

Ron Faucheux

Can an Independent Get Elected President in ’96? Maybe, if the Candidate’s Colin Powell

The signs are everywhere. Voter dissatisfaction with the political system and the federal government is rampant. Discontent with politicians who neither excite nor deliver has caused many Americans to at least consider straying from

their traditional partisan allegiances.

Voters want action, not politics. They’re printed to try something different. Evidence to that effect a bounds:

* Three-out-of-ten voters now self-identify as Independents, a proportion that has increased in recent years.

* A 1992 survey taken by a Democratic research firm, Penn + Schoen, found that 71 percent of Americans believed that electing an independent president was “a good way to get Congress and the political parties to work for the people instead of just helping themselves and the special interests.” In the same poll, 81 percent also expressed the view that the political system was not working.

More recent soundings confirm the continuation of these trends:

* Earlier this year, a survey taken for the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press indicated that just 55 percent of Americans were prepared to re-elect President Clinton or elect a Republican alternative and that the rest either didn’t know, wouldn’t say, or preferred an Independent. That study also showed that only 24 percent of the electorate was satisfied with the country’s course.

* In their new book The Politics of American Discontent, Gordon and Benjamin Black project that the core national Democratic vote is about 32 percent, the core Republican vote is about 28 percent, and that 37 percent of the electorate — based on their answers to a series of four survey questions — would be inclined to support a third party.

Could this popular tempest produce a viable independent presidential candidate in 1996? If history is your guide, the answer is probably not. The last time such a candidacy even came respectably close was in 1912 when former president Teddy Rooosevelt placed second.

Election of a third party president is a very long-shot. In its way stands a powerful partisan infrastructure and election laws which heavily favor the two major parties. But if you’re willing to leap beyond the conventional wisdom, then maybe there is a realistic scenario and an electable candidate to fit it.

Let’s use real numbers and real people and see how it could be done.

Big Shoes

The only way the election of a third party President is even remotely possible is if incumbent Bill Clinton enters the 1996 election seriously wounded. If Clinton strengthens his position or, in any case, is able to hold at least the 43 percent of the vote he captured in 1992 — it would kill off any chance of a third party victory. Under that circumstance, for an independent to find enough available votes to top Clinton’s 43+ percent would require a complete Republican collapse, which is implausible.

Another requisite is having the right horse. Candidates with high personal negatives or limited ideological appeals (i.e. Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader) would have very little chance. Candidates without solid national recognition or the potential of a strong fundraising base (i.e. John Anderson. Lowell Weicker, David Boren) would have too much ground make up to be taken seriously. Ross Perot, who at times has polled enough support to win a three way contest, is still a major force but now carries too much personal baggage to actually win the presidency.

Ideally, an independent candidate would have:

* Presidential stature. There are a lot of great state and local poiticians, but few of them would sell as a potential president;

* A public image that favorably contrasts with Clinton’s weaknesses. This would mean someone who is viewed as a nonpolitician who has no perceived character flaws but who has substantial foreign policy experience;

* Name recognition and/or money to effectively compete with the two major parties for press attention and ad time; and

* Ideological flexibility to simultaneously appeal to Perot voters while peeling off some left and right leaners who voted for Clinton and Bush.

These are big shoes for any mortal to fill. Even if filled, winning is still no cake walk.

General Electric

In 1952, after seven years of clubhouse pol Harry Truman, Americans wanted something different. General Dwight David Eisenhower, a war hero with a nonpolitical image, fit the bill. The right 1996 candidate may need a similar image.

Is there such a Cincinnatus in the wings? Perhaps there is. What about Colin Powell? General Colin Powell.

AS a war hero and nonpolitician, he offers a sharp contrast to Clinton. As an African American of nonpatrician origins, he avoids many of the pitfalls that a white, moneyed businessman may not be able to avoid. National polls show voters across-the-board hold him in high regard. His negatives are nearly nonexistent, which is essential for a candidacy that requires support across normal partisan, ideological, racial, and economic lines.

Whether General Powell is seriously entertaining a political career is unknown. His philosophic proclivities remain vague. His ability as a campaigner in a rough-and-tumble street fight is untested. But assuming he’s right on the issues and ready for political combat (admittedly big assumptions, even for the Hero of the Gulf) he fits the bill with uncanny perfection, almost eerily so.

Adding to the intrigue of this possibility was something Powell did recently. He contributed the maximum allowable donation, $1,000 each, to two independent and long-shot candidates for the U.S. Senate from Virginia: former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder (who was once considered by Perot as a possible running mate) and moderate former Republican Attorney General Marshall Coleman. In making these contributions, Powell may have been sending a signal.

With his Virginia play, Powell showed he’d take on a pro-Clinton Democrat like Chuck Robb, the incumbent Senator, and a darling of the far fight, Republican Ollie North. If he ever hoped to run for president as either a Democrat or as a Republican, his dabbling was dumb. But if he wants to run as a middle-ground independent, it may have been a master stroke. It may show, too, that there is some of both the lion and the fox in him.

But just as The Savior had John the Baptist to clear the way, Powell as an independent presidential candidate — without huge personal wealth or an established political network — could use the help of a trail blazer. Who better to play that role than Ross Perot, himself, a gutsy outrider who comes with the right message, wallet, and organizational network?

This leads us to the first leg of the Powell for President scenario: Perot’s possible candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

Banana Republicans

If Ross Perot wants to put the millions of dollars he’s spent on national politics to use, a sophisticated interference play like running in the GOP primaries to clear a path for an independent candidate in the general election may catch his fancy. After all, to set the stage for ultimate victory, the bantam billionaire is fully capable of sprinkling around big bucks and dropping a few well-placed banana peels designed to trip-up some of his old foes.

What better way to stir the pot than to use the GOP primaries as a ladle? With his network of supporters and endless supply of cash, this would give him an ideal forum to assail Clinton, assault the Republicans, and spread the message that America needs something new to fix what’s broke. Another bonus: As a moderate on social issues, Perot’s appeal would be to Republican free-enterprisers and deficit-hawks, not religious conservatives or hard right activists. As a result, Perot would further split the moderate GOP vote, making it easier for a conservative ideologue to win the nomination.

This plays into the Big Picture strategy. Only against a bloodied Clinton and a battered Republican could an independent candidacy of the middle succeed.

Perot could easily confine his campaigning to paid national media and the funding of a large network of “volunteer” activities, the way he did in 1992. This would save him from the indignities of slogging through local political swamps, as most primary contenders are forced to do, and allow him to keep his message and his money directed at the Big Picture.

In late March, after most of the delegates have been selected in the newly frontloaded primary calendar, Perot could then abandon his nomination quest. This gives him a pulpit to attack the leadership of both parties and proclaim there’s only one hope for America, something he suspected all along but wanted to test to make sure, and that’s the election of an independent. His choice? Colin Powell.

Even if Perot refuses to play this tricky get-in, get-out role, there’s another one he could assume with less risk. And that’s as an organizational sponsor. Through United We Stand or a “independent expenditure” effort, he could spearhead a massive national voter education and turnout program that would indirectly, but mightily, sustain a Powell candidacy.

Powell to the People

The date of Powell’s formal entry into the race would be dictated by two timing considerations: building a national fundraising operation and getting on the ballot in all 50 states. How Powell gets into the race would be just as important as how he runs the race. A good start is crucial to a high-profile candidacy, especially one with high expectations.

Running as an independent, Powell would not have to run the exhausting primary-caucus marathon. He could stay above the fray talking broad themes while his partisan opponents mud-wrestle their way across America. His message should be simple: The politicians haven’t delivered — it’s now time for a proven leader. Democrats and Republicans, he could argue, are too entwined in partisan bickering to get anything done. Only an independent not tied to either party and not adept in ways of political trickery can give taxpayers a government that works.

Powell’s ideal platform would be tough on crime and defense, populist but prudent on welfare and health care reform, pro-choice on abortion and schools. His strategic aim would be to hold the Perot voter, split Clinton’s black support, and pick-up moderate Republicans wary of their party’s right-ward drift. He’d concede ideologue liberals to Clinton and let his GOP rival keep the most ardent conservatives. He’d go after everyone else — the middle and those slightly right and left of center — and he’d do it on a nonpartisan, nonideological basis.

The strengths and weaknesses of the GOP’s nominee will also help define a Powell game plan. If their candidate is considered too far right, Powell could move in on moderate Republican pockets such as pro-choice women. If their candidate is perceived by conservatives as being weak on any key issue — such as taxes, gun control, term limits, or property rights — then Powell may be able to enlist critical grassroots help from direct democracy advocates, anti-tax warriors, hunters and gun owners — large voter groups that are growing in strength and organizational power.

There would be a plethora of good vice presidential choices for Powell. A moderate Republican woman would work best. Somebody like Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R-New Jersey), for example. If not a woman, perhaps a problem-solving mayor who has tackled the real-life blights of crime, drugs, and potholes in one of America’s troubled cities — Los Angeles’ Dick Riordan, Houston’s Bob Larder, New York’s Rudy Guiliani, and Jersey City’s Bret Schundler come to mind.

There are catches, of course, to every scenario. A big one is whether Powell’s race would prevent him from getting enough white votes. In elections from California to New York City, black candidates in majority-white electorates have generally polled higher white support than they get on election day. If this is true, then polls that show Powell as a strong contender may be overplaying it a bit.

Another stumbling block is the flip side of a white backlash and that’s whether Powell, running to Clinton’s right, would be able to take at least half of the incumbent president’s black support away from him, which is about what he’d need. Even though Clinton’s black base currently needs consolidation, and electing the first black president would have powerful pull in the black community, old Democratic party attachments and ideological sympathies would keep Clinton a viable competitor.

How these factors play out would hinge on the public’s perception of whether Powell could actually win. If he looked electable, then what he’d lose among whites who would feel uncomfortable with a black president could be offset by what he’d gain among blacks who would be energized by the possibility.

The New Math

If you use the popular votes cast for president in 1992 as a benchmark for the 1996 scenario, Powell would need at least 18 percent of Clinton’s 44.9 million votes, 27 percent of Bush’s 39.1 million votes, all of Perot’s 19.7 million votes, and 20 percent of the 670,000 votes that went for minor candidates, for a total of 38.5 million votes, to win. Assuming Clinton and the Republican nominee hold on to the rest of their 1992 vote, and any vote swaps between them would cancel each other out, then Clinton’s 1996 vote would total 36.8 million leaving the GOP ticket with 28.5 million.

In the electoral college, if you assume Powell captures Clinton, Bush, Perot, and minor candidate votes in each state to the same extent that he does nationally, based on the 1992 vote, then Powell would receive 320 electoral votes, a winning majority. He’d carry the following 32 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

In this state-by-state scenario, the tightest — and most crucial — win for Powell would be California with its 54 electoral votes. Based on these assumptions, Powell would barely edge Clinton in California by a mere 15,000 votes out of an 11.1 million total. Without the Golden State, Powell would fall four electoral votes short of a majority and the election would go into the U.S. House for resolution.

Whether all of these delicate assumptions survive the topsy-turvy events of a presidential campaign is something we cannot now answer.

But as we wrap up 1994, hungry eyes will quickly turn to the next leap year — when American voters will be asked to take another leap into their national future. And who knows what will lurk in their minds — and in their hearts — as they confront that choice.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group