THE GOP NOMINEE, a former entertainer whose presidential prospects were once ridiculed, gains in the polls with a not-so-subtle pitch to whites in the Rust Belt. His Democratic rival who survived a spirited challenge from the left is criticized as a career politician who doesn’t always connect well with voters. Meanwhile an obscure Republican launches a third party bid, appealing to disaffected Democrats.
Sound familiar? That was the fall of 1980.
While the theater of that campaign was subdued by this year’s standards, many of its dynamics were similar and offer caution to Democratic-leaning voters contemplating a third party candidate.
History tends to view Ronald Reagan’s presidency favorably, but in the run-up to 1980 he was generally considered a risky if not dangerous choice. Sound familiar?
The former actor’s cowboy persona undermined his electability, with the specter of a “Rea-gun” presidency eliciting guffaws on Laugh-In a decade earlier, much like Donald Trump’s prospects were derided until recently.
By the fall of 1980, however, Reagan hit a chord with dissatisfied voters across the country, particularly whites in Democratic proving grounds like Pennsylvania, which Trump is targeting.
I was a volunteer that year for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s primary campaign, and exchanged my Kennedy buttons for buttons promoting independent candidate John Anderson after Kennedy conceded. The example of Kennedy supporters migrating to Anderson should be of concern to Hillary Clinton as she courts Bernie Sanders’s supporters flirting with third party candidates like Gary Johnson.
Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, could cost Clinton several swing states from Nevada to New Hampshire by attracting enough disaffected Democrats.
In 1980, Anderson cost Carter at least nine states, including Democrat-rich Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New York.
In Massachusetts, Anderson received 100 times as many votes as Reagan’s narrow margin of victory over Carter and three times as many as his margin in New York.
Overall, I estimate Anderson cost Carter at least 101 electoral votes, more than double the 49 Carter received.
In two other contests over the past 50 years Democratic defections to a third party candidate arguably prevented the party’s nominee from winning.
In 2000, Ralph Nader, who, like Anderson appealed to progressives, received more votes than George W. Bush’s margin in New Hampshire and Florida, depriving Al Gore of the presidency. In 1968, George Wallace won several Southern states that typically voted Democratic and prevented Hubert Humphrey from winning many others.
In each case, as with Ross Perot in 1992, the third party candidate provided another option for voters to register their dissatisfaction with the incumbent party.
So while many Democrats hoped Johnson and Weld’s campaign would siphon Republican voters away from Trump, recent history suggests it actually helps Trump.
Polling in several swing states bears this out, with Clinton performing better against Trump in head to head match-ups than when third party candidates are included. Given current close Electoral College scenarios akin to 2000 and 2004, Democratic defections to Johnson and Weld in even one state could swing the election.
Thus, the pressure on Bill Weld to drop out of the race and endorse Clinton, and Bernie Sanders’s recent appeal that this is not the year to cast a protest vote.
Support for third party candidates typically wanes as Election Day approaches, but if enough Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters defect to a third party, they may once again deliver the election to Republicans.
Or as Reagan famously scolded Carter during their debate, “there you go again.”
James Davitt Rooney is principal of Rooney Associates LLC and holds an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School and BA in Ethics and Political Philosophy from Brown University. He served on the Obama-Biden Urban and Regional Policy Council in 2008.