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Why 2012 could be the year of the third-party candidate

Nonpartisan group Americans Elect wants to mount a third-party challenge in Election 2012, and it just qualified for the California ballot. A third-party candidate could get traction, experts say.

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That is, unless a charismatic or well-known leader emerges from American Elect's online nominating convention.

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“The impact of Americans Elect will depend on the nominee. A well-known candidate might win a measurable share of the popular vote,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.   

And that would almost certainly change the political calculus.

“A reelection campaign is a referendum on the incumbent, so anything that splits the anti-Obama vote will work to the president’s advantage," says Mr. Pitney.

Noting that Ralph Nader siphoned enough votes from Al Gore to tip Florida – and thus the presidency – to George W. Bush in 2000, analysts say that third party candidates usually hurt who they are closest to ideologically.

“Anyone to the left will take from the Democrats and hurt Obama and to the right will hurt his opponent,” says Jessica Levinson, former political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies

Still others think that this particular election is so polarized, it might make voters loath to give up their votes at all.

“The more Democrats and Republicans believe that the other party is not just wrong, but evil – as seems to be likely the sub rosa messages of both parties' campaign strategies – then the less likely voters will vote for a third-party candidate,” says Villanova political scientist Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency." "I don't imagine that when election day rolls around too many voters will feel they can waste their votes.”

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