In 1992, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, a political outsider who had grown tired of the partisan politics that hampered Washington, ran for president as an independent candidate. Riding a wave of public support — based largely on his irascible demeanor and centrist views on issues like gun control, abortion and the environment — he surged to the lead in most national polls, ahead of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush. And on Election Day, he earned nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, the largest amount for any independent or third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt's 24 percent in the 1912 election.
In the 15 years since Perot's '92 bid, the state of politics outside the two-party system has been a mixed bag: Perot ran for president again in 1996, this time under the aegis of the Reform Party, but garnered just 8 percent of the popular vote. In 1998, former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was famously elected governor of Minnesota, running as a candidate of Perot's Reform Party. And in the 2000 presidential election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received just 3 percent of the national vote, but the 97,000 votes he received in the state of Florida certainly might have swung the election toward Republican George W. Bush.
Of course, heading into the 2008 election, things are beginning to look a lot like 1992 (and not just because we're in Iraq again). Talk of change, bipartisanship and unity has crossed the lips of both Democratic and Republican front-runners, and the presidential hopefuls seem to believe that Washington is an irrevocably broken machine in need of a firm shakeup (even, of course, those candidates who are part of that machine). There's also been the rise of so-called "electronic town halls" — forums with candidates sponsored by Facebook, YouTube and MTV/MySpace — that Perot spoke of during his '92 bid for the White House
All that evidence seems to signify that, for the first time since Perot swept in from the sidelines, we could be looking at a truly viable third-party (or independent) candidate for president. Or maybe even two of them.
According to several reports, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could be the first. Quoting "a source close to the mayor," CNN reported Thursday that Bloomberg — who has been mulling an independent run for the White House — has launched a research effort to decide whether he has a legitimate shot at the presidency; he is reportedly expected to make his decision by early March.
Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat before switching parties and running as a Republican candidate for mayor in 2001. Last year, he filed papers with the New York Board of Elections to have his affiliation switch again, this time to an independent, a move that only further fueled speculation that he was planning a run for the presidency. And though Bloomberg has repeatedly denied that he has his eyes on the White House, he is certainly beginning to act like a candidate: Earlier this week, he traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, to join Republican and Democratic lawmakers on a panel discussion that called for bipartisanship in government.
"People have stopped working together," Bloomberg said at the gathering. "Government is dysfunctional. There is no collaboration and congeniality. There is no working together and 'Let's do what's right for the country.' ... No willingness to focus on big ideas."
Pundits point to Bloomberg's centrist leanings as a reason he'd appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle: He is socially liberal, supporting abortion rights, gay marriage and the normalization of illegal immigrants, but also refers to himself as a fiscal conservative and is a staunch supporter of the Patriot Act. He also opposes a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. But just how well he'd do in a national election seems to depend on who he'd be running against, which seems to be why he's delaying his decision until after the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5, when — in theory — the front-runners for both parties' nominations should become clear.
According to a Newsweek poll, Bloomberg would receive roughly 13 percent of the popular vote if he were running against Hillary Clinton and John McCain. That number dips to 11 percent if he were running against any combination of Clinton/ Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama/ McCain or Obama/Giuliani. Of those polled, 65 percent said they were either "not too likely" or "not at all likely" to vote for Bloomberg if he ran as an independent, with only 5 percent saying they were "very likely" to vote for him.
The other potential independent candidate is "about 99.9 percent" sure he wouldn't run outside the two-party system, but that .01 percent — combined with his leanings, popularity among young voters and ever-growing coffers — certainly makes him an intriguing option.
On the December 23 edition of NBC's "Meet the Press," Republican candidate Ron Paul, who has finished fifth in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, was asked by host Tim Russert if he had any intention to run for the White House as an independent if he did not receive the party's nomination for president. While Paul repeatedly stated that he had "no intention" of doing so, he stopped short of speaking in absolutes when pressed.
"I deserve one wiggle now and then, Tim," he said. "I don't like people who are such absolutists, 'I will never do this,' or, 'I will win, I'm going to come in first.' I don't like those absolutist terms in politics."
And while that's certainly less than a definitive statement, Paul seems to be the perfect fit for an independent run. While he does hold true to some Republican standards — he supports state efforts to pass "Right to Life" amendments and opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants — he's also staunchly against the war in Iraq, favors a return to the gold standard and blames U.S. foreign policy for the 9/11 attacks. And unlike other candidates — Republican or Democrat — he makes it a point to have a transparent donor roll, constantly updating a list of those who contribute money to his campaign via his Web site.
And while Bloomberg or Paul could mount a sizable challenge against the two-party system, they are by no means the only possible (if somewhat improbable) independent candidates. Former Democratic nominee — and current environmental crusader — Al Gore has been mentioned several times, but he's repeatedly stated that he has no intention of running in 2008. Also on the list are a few lesser-known names, like former Republican Senator John Danforth and current Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, both of whom attended the bipartisanship forum with Bloomberg.