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Santorum's exit and the contest of 2 ... or 4
April 11, 2012 - Mike Maneval
With Rick Santorum's departure from the presidential race Tuesday, the new narrative many - if not most - cable pundits and other commentators will try to assign the race is that of, in the words of a Wednesday Associated Press report, "the contest between the two virtually certain nominees" - incumbent President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
But as certain as such pundits may be in using such a narrative, it by no means is a foregone conclusion. While additional independent and third-party candidates face additional challenges Obama and Romney won't, the potential for infuential bids remains strong.
Gary Johnson, former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, is running for the Libertarian Party nomination, which if he wins puts him on fall ballots in nearly every state. The Americans Elect initiative also is pursuing ballot spots in all or most states, and is recruiting candidates through Internet activism. At this juncture, former Louisiana governor Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer and former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson have expressed interest in the Americans Elect bid. Roemer has the distinction of serving as a Republican governor and several terms as a Democrat representing Louisiana in the U.S. House.
People who dismiss the potential impact of these candidacies forget history, and not distant history either. In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote in his challenge to incumbent President George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While Perot had success in managing an information systems company, he had never conducted a successful campaign for elected office - a feat Johnson and Roemer each have accomplished more than once. Perot won the support of nearly one in five voters, despite his accusations that the Bush campaign infiltrated his daughter's wedding, and despite quitting the race at one point, only to again change his mind and re-enter.
And he won nearly one in five votes as the U.S. enjoyed a stronger economy. In 1992, the unemployment rate averaged at 7.5 percent - lower than it has been at any point since the economic collapse in late 2008. Even as the average unemployment rate fell every year during President Bill Clinton's first term to an average of 5.4 percent in 1996, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one in 10 voters in 1996 cast their ballots for Ross Perot's second attempt for the presidency.
And Roemer - presuming the Americans Elect initiative is unsuccessful in recruiting a stronger candidate - and Johnson enjoy advances in social media and technology that better enable organizing supporters and activists that didn't exist when Perot's fans placed him on ballots and advocated for him.
Moreover, Johnson and Roemer don't have to split 20 percent of the popular vote to have an impact. In an even more recent presidential race, consumer advocate Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy drew less than 3 percent of the electorate. Yet, many attributed the alternative he presented to the Al Gore's bid toward Gore's defeat in Florida and New Hampshire.
Of course, to get even 3 percent between the two of them, Johnson and Roemer have to effectively and, likely, relentlessly push back against the effort to define the 2012 race as "the contest between the two."
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