Not so long ago, Democrats just loved the idea of third-party candidates who came along and shaved points off the margins of major party nominees. The offices at the Democratic National Committee echoed with schadenfreude last fall when Pat Buchanan jumped ship for the Reform Party. But now, with Ralph Nader making a strong showing in early polls and threatening to take progressive votes away from Al Gore, third-party candidacies suddenly seem a lot less appealing to the Democrats.
Still, couldn't Buchanan, who will presumably attract primarily Republican voters, end up paving Al Gore's way to the presidency? While early polls don't give much reason for hope--Buchanan is stuck in the low single digits, more or less where Nader is--two potent elements could make the Buchanan campaign a significant factor in November.
First, consider money: Unlike Nader, Buchanan should be able to run a surprisingly well-financed campaign. Everyone knows about the $12.6 million in federal funds Buchanan will receive as the Reform Party nominee. But that's only the floor, not the ceiling. Twice that number would be a more accurate estimate of what Buchanan will be able to spend during the general election campaign.
Here's why: The regular party candidates are barred from raising additional (hard money) funds for the general election campaign as a condition of accepting federal funding. But third-party candidates aren't. According to the Federal Election Commission, third-party candidates who receive federal funds are barred only from raising and spending funds in excess of what the regular party candidates receive to run their general election campaigns--in this case, roughly $67.5 million. That means, in effect, Buchanan faces no caps on fundraising or spending. And there are very good reasons to believe that he'll be able to raise quite a bit. As of the most recent federal filings, he had raised almost $12 million. That compares to $44 million for Al Gore and $88 million for George W. Bush. Much less, yes, but hardly insignificant by comparison. Moreover, 35 percent of Buchanan's contributors made donations of less than $250. This suggests a committed fundraising base that he'll continue to draw on over the course of the campaign.
Of course, that money has now all been spent, presumably on getting Buchanan on state ballots around the country. But $12 million seems like a reasonable benchmark for what he should be able to raise between now and the end of the campaign; and that, added to his $12.6 million in federal funding, will give him somewhere in the neighborhood of $20-$25 million to spend during the general election.
Will Buchanan be outspent by Bush and Gore? Yes, massively. And they'll also have the benefit of soft money ads and independent expenditure campaigns. But they'll also need to spread their money across 50 states (or nearly 50). With $25 odd million in his war chest, Buchanan should have enough funds to get his message across in perhaps a dozen key states, which is all he'll need to do to have an impact on the election outcome.
But to break out of single digits and shake free some of Bush's voters, Buchanan needs a dividing issue to upset the tacit bargain the right wing of the Republican Party has made with the Texas governor. That issue is obvious--abortion--especially since its divisiveness will be crystallized for the Republicans in a single decision Bush will have to make this summer: whether or not to choose a pro-choice running mate. The Buchanan camp is playing the issue up as much as it can by emphasizing the Reform Party candidate's unequivocal stance on abortion. "Obviously Pat's running mate will be pro-life," Bay Buchanan, Pat's sister and perennial campaign manager, assured me.
Bush could inoculate himself against Buchanan by choosing a solid pro-life running mate. But the overall tilt of his campaign strategy to grab the center and reassure swing voters militates against this. And Bush himself appears very eager to choose Pennsylvania's pro-choice governor, Tom Ridge. So what happens if Bush chooses Ridge or another pro-choice Republican? Some of the most acute observers of Republican politics seem genuinely uncertain. Most of the marquee pro-life Republican politicos, such as Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, would evidently like to get Bush through the election without any public bloodletting on the abortion issue. But the predilections of the pro-life rank and file are less clear.
Will Buchanan catch fire with disgruntled pro-life voters?Some of Buchanan's friends and former associates argue that his agenda of opposition to abortion, affirmative action, and immigration have more supporters than is generally supposed. These issues, they contend, plus money and entry into the presidential debates could catapult Buchanan into the 10 percent range, about what Ross Perot was able to accomplish in 1996. These are highly speculative scenarios, however, based on a series of events that probably won't come to pass.
But perhaps trying to predict the final vote tally is not the best way to determine which candidate will have the greater effect on the outcome of the election.The real question may be, which third-party standard-bearer will have more luck pulling his respective major party candidate away from the political center, thereby hobbling party efforts to curry favor with centrist swing voters in the general election campaign?
This makes Buchanan a bigger threat to Bush than Nader is to Gore, for the most likely scenario in response to Bush's choosing a pro-choice veep is not so much a mass defection on the right as a more complex process in which Bush finds himself in an unmanageable effort to straddle this deeply polarized debate. Bush's efforts to reassure his base of his pro-life bona fides could lead him to make assurances that in turn would alienate suburban swing voters. And such a bidding war of contradictory reassurances could escalate out of control. "It's one thing to have Alan Keyes or Gary Bauer criticizing you from the sidelines," says Republican analyst and Weekly Standard Publisher Bill Kristol, "but having Buchanan on the ballot makes the threat so much more concrete. The danger for Bush is that he has to start saying things like, 'I am setting the policy, not Tom Ridge.' And then he sort of gets whipsawed [on both sides of the debate]." Dealing with that situation would require real rhetorical finesse (and remember who we're talking about here). Whether Bush transcends this rift or gets ripped apart will play a key role in determining who wins this fall's campaign. ¤