Smith's third party could prove spoiler for Bush

July 15, 1999|By Ray Jenkins

TEXAS Gov. George W. Bush hopes to become the second man in history to follow his father into the presidency. But here's the irony: Circumstances that helped to elect the other son of a president, John Quincy Adams, could undermine Mr. Bush's bid.

As one who knows his history, surely Mr. Bush felt a surge of despair recently when Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire abandoned the GOP to seek the presidency on a yet-unnamed third-party ticket. The governor knows that third-party candidates always introduce an element of uncertainty and as often as not wind up tilting the election in ways they neither intended nor preferred.

Mr. Smith's rationale is simple. He believes that Mr. Bush is soft on the issues dearest to the hearts of the cultural conservatives: abortion and gun control. And it is true that Mr. Bush, while proclaiming himself steadfastly pro-life and anti-gun control, has sought to mute those issues because he has seen the frightful price paid by Republican candidates -- including his own father -- for having to embrace these explosive issues in recent years.

But in Mr. Smith's mind, muting the issues amounts to moral cowardice; principle demands that he carry on the battle and let the chips fall where they may.

Devoid of money, name recognition and presidential persona, Mr. Smith has no chance of being elected to the White House. But under our archaic electoral system, he still could assure the election of the Democratic nominee, most likely Vice President Al Gore. This is pretty much what happened in 1824 when Adams won the presidency with just 30 percent of the popular vote -- running far behind Andrew Jackson, who got 44 percent. The remaining 26 percent was evenly split between two other candidates, one of whom threw his votes -- and the presidency -- to Adams.

Four years later, voters proclaimed their dissatisfaction when, in a one-on-one race, Jackson unseated Adams in a landslide.

Bull Moose run

An even more apt illustration of the threat of the Smith candidacy to Mr. Bush occurred nearly a century later when Theodore Roosevelt broke with the Republicans to challenge a sitting president, William Howard Taft, on a third-party ticket. With Roosevelt and Taft splitting the Republican vote, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912 with just 45 percent of the popular vote -- but a landslide in electoral votes.

In 1968, George Wallace carried only 13 percent of the popular vote, but he came close to depriving Richard Nixon of the presidency. Nixon would have won by a landslide over then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey had not Wallace carried five states, which otherwise almost certainly would have gone to Nixon.

But what must give Mr. Bush nightmares is his own father's experience in 1992. That year, the redoubtable Ross Perot took 19 percent of the popular vote, which enabled Bill Clinton to win the presidency with just 45 percent of the popular vote but an electoral-vote landslide. Most analysts say that Mr. Bush might have won if Mr. Perot had not been in the race.

It is facile and fanciful to play electoral parlor games, but consider just one scenario that will demonstrate the danger a Smith candidacy poses for Mr. Bush.

Hypothetical situation

Let's suppose that the race becomes a dead heat between the most likely nominees, with Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore each drawing 48 percent of the popular vote and Mr. Smith drawing a mere 4 percent. And let's further suppose that the division is so close that each candidate could end up in a tie in the electoral vote -- 269 votes each.

And now let's suppose that Maryland, in a two-man race, would give a slight edge to Mr. Bush. But with Mr. Smith in the race running on anti-abortion and anti-gun control issues, every vote he received would be a vote that otherwise would go to Mr. Bush.

Thus, Mr. Gore would carry the state comfortably with 48 percent of the popular vote to Mr. Bush's 44 percent and Mr. Smith's 4 percent. That would give Mr. Gore all 10 of Maryland's electoral votes -- just possibly enough to put him over the 270 he would need to win.

In a close election, with Mr. Smith in the race, a relative handful of voters in any single state could tilt the election from Mr. Bush to Mr. Gore.

Ray Jenkins was an editorial page editor of the late lamented Evening Sun and is presently a director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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