Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Last week, President Barack Obama gave a speech whose location, tone and language consciously evoked an address by Theodore Roosevelt at the outset of the 1912 presidential campaign. The deliberate historical echo, however, raised an intriguing question: Will Obama’s 2012 effort bear a closer resemblance to the one waged by Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt’s opponent, than to the race run by TR himself?
Observers have noted the many similarities between Obama and Wilson. Both were scholarly, brilliant, and accomplished authors before becoming president. Both drew political strength from their gifts as speakers, and relied far less on conventional political attributes, such as an aptitude for backslapping and schmoozing. Both came from the reformist wing of their party, with little support from the insiders.
But the most intriguing similarity has only begun to take shape in recent weeks: Like Wilson in 1912, Obama may face a Republican Party that is unable to unite behind a single choice and whose voters would have to choose between two candidates on the ballot in the fall.
In 1912, conservative Republicans refused to support the nomination of the party’s most popular figure -- former President Teddy Roosevelt -- and instead backed the preferred candidate of the right wing: incumbent President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt then ran as a third-party candidate, divided the Republican vote with Taft, and Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won an Electoral College landslide.
Could a similar scenario unfold next year?
Impactful -- and even decisive -- third-party campaigns are more common than we usually appreciate. In the last eight presidential elections, a significant outside candidate has been on the ballot four times (John Anderson in 1980; Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996; and Ralph Nader in 2000), and there is a serious argument that the outcomes of two of these four races (1992 and 2000) would have been different if that insurgent hadn’t run.
Recent developments in the Republican contest have substantially raised the likelihood of a noteworthy third-party candidacy in this election.
First, the collapse of the Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain boomlets, and the coalescence of conservatives behind Newt Gingrich, have created the architecture for an ideologically driven, one-on-one contest between the former House speaker and Mitt Romney that is likely to be especially divisive.
The 2008 Democratic primary provides a useful contrast. While the race between Hillary Clinton and Obama was long, close and hard fought, the differences between the two candidates were mostly of leadership style and generational tone. The choice for voters was between a “restoration” of the Clinton White House and a changing of the guard. Those aren’t the sort of differences that drive the supporters of the defeated primary candidate to bolt their party.
The sharply contrasting ideological divide between Gingrich and Romney may be another story. It could lead the loser’s backers to seek an alternative in the fall. On the conservative side, it’s clear that a substantial number of Republicans find Romney unacceptable because of his Massachusetts health-coverage plan that strongly resembled Obama’s law; his (at least previously) moderate positions on social issues; and the sense that he has flip-flopped on core conservative values. In addition, Romney’s Wall Street ties and establishment roots make him particularly unacceptable to an important subset of conservatives: the populists of the Tea Party.
Romney’s inability to crack 30 percent in polls of Republican primary voters isn’t merely the traditional “buyers’ remorse” that plagues all front-runners in the nominating process. He is facing an entrenched, hardening resistance by conservatives.
Conversely, the emergence of the highly polarizing, bombastic Gingrich as the leading conservative candidate makes it less likely that the party’s moderates will fall into line. These Republicans might be able to accept another conservative favorite -- Perry, for example -- as their choice, but not Gingrich.
Second, the new Republican nomination rules in place this year increase the chances of a protracted contest. In the 2008 race, John McCain was able to lock up the nomination early by sweeping large, winner-take-all primaries. But this time, the party has adopted a “proportional representation” system that Democrats have used in the past. These rules allow the losing candidates to continue to build delegate totals, which encourages them to stay in the race to the very end.
Put these two factors together, and you have the makings of a long, divisive, ideological primary that may result in a conflagration when the losing faction starts to ponder a third-party challenge to the winner.
This isn’t to say that either Gingrich or Romney would run as third-party candidates: Neither is likely to want to be saddled with the “sore loser” epithet that would accompany such a choice. But if Romney wins the Republican nomination, would Ron Paul -- who expressly refused to rule out the third-party path on “Meet the Press” last week -- run as a Tea Party alternative to the establishmentarian candidate? If Gingrich wins the nod, would Jon Huntsman -- who broke with his party once to serve in the Obama administration -- emerge as a moderate alternative? Neither possibility is far-fetched.
This is all the more plausible as the 2012 race will feature a path to national ballot access for a third-party candidate that hasn’t existed previously.
Historically, one of the major obstacles to such candidacies was the difficulty of gaining access to the ballot in enough states to mount a truly national campaign. Until now, there have been only two ways to overcome this formidable hurdle: the mobilization of many passionate, grassroots volunteers (John Anderson, Ralph Nader), or a personal fortune to underwrite an army of paid signature collectors (Ross Perot).
In 2012, there also will be a third path: the online campaign known as Americans Elect, which has already collected more than 2 million signatures to put “Candidate TBD” on the ballot next year. The group is running an online nominating process -- culminating in an online convention in June -- that will hand a ballot slot in all (or at least most) of the 50 states to whoever can get his supporters to log the most clicks.
If Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, would Americans Elect become a vehicle for a moderate Republican to seek a third-party line in 2012? Almost certainly. If Romney wins, would the Tea Party forces put their manpower into winning the Americans Elect line for one of their own? No doubt.
Americans Elect, then, is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: We caught a glimpse of it on stage in the first act, so it almost certainly will go off -- with story-changing consequences -- before the end of the play.
With 11 months until Election Day, anything can happen, of course. But Gingrich’s rise as a consolidator of conservative resistance to Romney; the former House speaker’s lack of appeal among moderate voters; the rule changes that make a long primary (and hence a bitter one) more likely; and the presence of a ready-made launching pad for disgruntled Republicans to offer a candidate of their choosing all contribute to a particularly high probability of two Republicans on the ballot.
This state of affairs may be as helpful to Obama as it was to Wilson in 1912, when he rode Republican discord all the way to victory.
(Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on the Recovery Act, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior executive with a private investment firm. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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