1912 Redux?

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the most successful third party candidate in American history.  In 1912, disappointed with four years of William Howard Taft’s administration, former President (and native New Yorker) Theodore Roosevelt challenged his handpicked successor for the Republican nomination.

After he failed to take it away from Taft at the party’s convention in Chicago, Roosevelt and other like minded progressives started a third party.  When someone asked the former president how he felt on his new venture, he replied that he felt like “a Bull moose”.  Thus the Bull Moose Party was born.

Roosevelt came in an astonishing second place in November behind New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, and in front of the incumbent President, Taft.   (The campaign also included an assassination attempt on the former president, whereby he was shot in the chest before a scheduled speech and impressively went onto deliver the speech.)

A full century later, could we be poised to see the return of a third party?  With former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney poised to be the GOP nominee (especially if he wins Tommorow’s New Hampshire primary), the challenge may not come from President Obama’s left, but rather from Romney’s right.

The successes of former Senator Rick Santorum and Representative Ron Paul in last week’s Iowa caucuses demonstrate the conservative dissatisfaction with the presumed republican front runner.   Romney only beat Santorum by a record setting eight votes.  His winning percentage – twenty five percent – means that three out of every four republicans who showed up last week wanted someone else to be the nominee.  By contrast, when President Obama won the Iowa caucuses four years ago, he scored thirty eight percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and a host of other also-rans.

Romney served as a moderate governor of Massachusetts.  He tacked to the right a bit when running unsuccessfully against John McCain in 2008 and has moved even further in that direction since beginning his 2012 campaign.  If he is to convince conservatives that he is their man to take on the president, he still has more than nine months for serious outreach and diplomacy, but it may be too late.  His political flip flopping and formerly liberal positions are ripe for a more conservative republican, such as Santorum or Paul, to mount a third party challenge.

With November’s election certain to be extremely close, a challenge from the right would presumably take away votes from Romney, assuring President Obama’s reelection, just as Roosevelt’s challenge took away votes from Taft.  As vulnerable as some people say the President is, he is very unlikely to have a serious challenge from the left besides the perennial third party candidates.  Romney, on the other hand, will not be able to unite the Republican Party behind his candidacy the way that Obama will be able to bring together every faction of the Democratic Party.  Romney’s moderate positions, not to mention his Mormon faith, will not sit well with the evangelical Christian right, which may search high and low for a candidate who can espouse their views.

Romney has some time to fend off a challenge.  He will most certainly bring as many conservatives into his tent as he can leading up to November.  If he is not capable of doing so, he may face the same fate that met another establishment republican candidate 100 years ago.