DESPITE independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's high rankings in several recent polls, many political observers still believe his chances of winning the White House are slim.
Their analysis is based on history: Despite many attempts, no third-party or independent candidate has ever won a United States presidential election.
Third-party candidacies are far from rare in presidential elections. In almost 1 in 5 elections since George Washington's in 1789, third or even fourth candidates have played roles in determining the outcome.
The most recent third candidate was John Anderson in 1980, who was the first significant candidate to run without a party nomination. Although he garnered 20 percent in national polls at one point, he received only about 7 percent of the popular vote on election day, and got no electoral votes.
Other third candidates have been more successful, sometimes even coming in second. Theodore Roosevelt tried to recapture the White House on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. He got 30 percent of the vote and 88 electoral votes, relegating the incumbent Republican, William Howard Taft, to third place and handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Like Roosevelt, several other third candidates have affected the outcome of the race. Many observers think that George Wallace, who in 1968 captured 14 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes, ensured the defeat of Democrat Hubert Humphrey and gave the election to Republican Richard Nixon.
A century earlier, in 1860, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge came in third in the popular vote, with 18 percent, but second in the electoral vote with 72; while Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas was second in the popular vote, with 29 percent, but finished fourth with only 12 electoral votes. (Tennesseean John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party captured 13 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes.) The split ensured the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, thereby
triggering the Civil War.
The Perot candidacy, however, is like no other. Unlike Congressman Anderson, who came out of the Republican primaries, Perot has entered no primaries, sought no party's endorsement, and says he is prepared to advance $100 million of his own money to finance his campaign. Both the Bush and Clinton camps are convinced that even if he does not win, he will markedly affect the campaign, and are planning accordingly. Whether he will do more damage to President Bush or Governor Clinton is impossible to know at
this early date.
Based on the current polling figures, however, one real possibility is that Perot could throw the election into the House of Representatives. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides that if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House elects the president from the top three candidates, with the delegation of each state having one vote, and a clear majority of states needed for election.
Thus, if the new Congress perpetuates Democratic control of the House, Clinton could be elected even if he comes in third in the popular or electoral vote. Democrats currently control 31 state delegations in the House, compared with 10 controlled by Republicans and nine that are split 50-50 or have one independent congressman.
The House has elected the president three times in US history. The first time, in 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes. The 1824 election saw four candidates from the same party, the Democrat Republicans, capture electoral votes with none getting a majority: John Quincy Adams, whom the House elected, trailed Andrew Jackson by 84 electoral votes to 99, with 37 for Henry Clay and 41 for William Crawford.
But perhaps the strangest election was that of 1876, when Republican Rutherford Hayes received 48 percent of the popular vote and 165 undisputed electoral votes versus Democrat Samuel Tilden, who got 52 percent of the popular vote, but only 184 undisputed electoral votes, just one shy of the amount needed for victory.
Twenty electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were claimed by both parties, and one vote from Oregon was thrown out as unconstitutional. The House of Representatives set up a commission of five representatives, five senators, and five members of the Supreme Court to adjudicate the disputed votes.
Since the political makeup of the commission was eight Republicans and seven Democrats, the result was a foregone conclusion: Hayes was awarded the disputed votes and won the election, 185 to 184. Democrats accepted the outcome because Republicans promised to withdraw federal troops from the South, which they had occupied since the end of the Civil War 11 years earlier. Hayes did this soon after his inauguration, pulling the rug out from under Republican state governments across the region, and setting t he stage for the curbing of blacks' civil rights.
To prevent a recurrence of this situation, Congress in 1887 passed the Electoral Count Act, which provides that the House accept the electoral votes from a state as certified by its governor.
These scenarios are discussed every time a legitimate third candidate enters the presidential race. The key to whether Perot's candidacy can foster a hung election will be whether his popularity in large electoral-vote states remains firm - a prospect many observers still have a hard time believing will happen.