For the third time in our generation, independent voters could be the balance of power in this year’s presidential election. In 1968, Alabama Gov. George G. Wallace, standardbearer of the American Independent Party, received 13 percent of the popular vote, a sum greater than the difference between Hubert H. Humphrey and the victor, Richard M. Nixon. In 1992, billionaire entrepreneur H. Ross Perot and his Reform Party garnered 19 percent of the vote, greater than the margin between President George Bush and the winner, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Although it appears unlikely that either Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan or Green Party nominee Ralph Nader will equal the showing of Wallace or Perot, their combined vote, drawn mainly from political independents, could reach double digits in some swing states, thus biting the election’s outcome and contributing to a long and often overlooked tradition in American politics.

One-third of presidential elections since 1824 have been decided by independent voters and third parties or candidates (1824, 1844, 1848, 1856, 1860, 1876, 1880. 1884. 1888, 1892, 1912, 1916, 1948, 1960, 1968, and 1992). In two of those races (1824 and 1876), the independents forced the outcome into the House of Representatives. Neither of those victors (John Quincy Adams in 1824 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876) won a majority of the popular vote; in fact, Adams received less than one third of the popular vote. In 1888, Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland polled nearly 100,000 more votes than Republican Benjamin Harrison but still lost the presidency in the Electoral College.

Although largely forgotten today, George Wallace’s strategy in 1968 was to deprive the major parties of an electoral majority and decide the election in the Electoral College, not the House of Representatives. He obtained affidavits from his electors promising to vote for Wallace “or whomsoever he may direct.” But Nixon and Humphrey refused to negotiate with Wallace. Both said the election, if necessary, should be decided in the House. Nevertheless, if Nixon had been held to fewer than 270 electoral votes, Wallace could have assumed the role of kingmaker. This did not occur, although Wallace did win 46 electoral votes in the Deep South. Perot, by comparison, did not win any, nor will Buchanan or Nader.

Yet history shows that third-party candidates need not win states to have an impact on the political process. Wallace’s most enduring influence was in reshaping American politics after the election. Nixon and, to a greater extent, Ronald Reagan co-opted Wallace’s supporters by stressing socially conservative issues. Third parties are most powerful when one of the two major parties is compelled to adopt their platform.

Examples abound in U.S. history, many involving populist economic, trade, and monetary issues. The 1892 Populist platform, which emphasized free silver and opposition to the gold standard, was co-opted four years later by William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats. Grover Cleveland, elected president in 1892 for the second time, was the last pro-gold Democrat. Populist support peaked that year when presidential nominee Gen. James B. Weaver received 8.5 percent of the vote; he won four states and cost Cleveland three.

The Populists lost the election, but their ideas prevailed over the long term. The 1892 Populist platform stated:

The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders; a vast public debt payable in legal tender currency has been funded into gold-bearing bonds, thereby adding millions to the burden of the people. Silver, which has been accepted as coin since the dawn of history, has been demonetized to add to the purchasing power of gold by decreasing the value of all forms of property as well as human labor, and the supply of currency is purposely abridged to fatten usurers, bankrupt enterprise and enslave industry.

Bv 1896, the Democratic platform read:

Recognizing that the money question is paramount to all others at this time . . . demonetizing silver without the knowledge or approval of the American people has resulted in the appreciation of gold and a corresponding fall in the prices of commodities produced by the people; a heavy increase in the burdens of taxation and of all debts, public and private; the enrichment of the money-lending class at home and abroad; the prostration of industry and impoverishment of the people.

Eugene V. Debs stood four times for president as a Socialist; he peaked in 1912 with six percent of the popular vote. Yet so much of the 1912 Socialist Party platform was later adopted by the Democrats that, by the time of FDR’s election in 1932, some socialists declared victory. The 1912 platform called for a ban on child labor, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, and a government pension system for the elderly. Although the Democratic Party was silent on those issues in 1912, it later adopted each Socialist plank. The Socialist vote frightened the Democrats: In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was reelected in a narrow race made even closer by Socialist Allen L. Benson, who achieved a balance of power with three percent of the vote.

The Socialists of the early 20th century succeeded on a scale much greater than the Libertarians who emerged in the century’s last quarter. The Libertarians have never attained more than one percent of the vote because they do not practice serious politics. Today’s Greens and Reformers are at least trying. Their greatest long-term impact will most likely come after November, if the major party that loses the race for the White House co-opts their issues. Until Nader entered the race, this was unlikely: George Bush or Al Gore could have won without Buchanan achieving a balance of power. Co-optation is far more likely after a four-way race. If Bush wins, the Democrats will feel pressure to adopt Green issues. Should Gore win, the Republicans will face similar pressure to co-opt Buchanan’s Reform message. By contrast, the Libertarian Party would never engage in such realpolitik.

Since Perot received one in five votes cast in the 1992 election, both major parties have co-opted Reform’s message of balanced budgets and campaign-finance reform. Mainstream-media liberals and Beltway conservatives agree publicly on one point: Perot is a (take your pick) “kook,” “nut,” or “wacko.” However, these analysts are sleepwalking when they allow their personal hostility toward a successful businessman (as with the liberals) or their desire for cushy, well-paying jobs in a Republican administration (as with the conservatives) to cloud their judgment. Establishment conservatives, desperate for federal positions after eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, are withholding criticism of George W. Bush’s pork-barrel spending proposals. Many are holdovers from the first Reagan administration, eager to work again for the federal government. “They came to Washington to clean up the cesspool,” a well known conservative wag once observed, “but decided after spending some time that it resembled more a hot tub.” These conservatives have been the most vociferous critics of Perot and Buchanan.

The professional strategists who actually win elections know otherwise: Think of Perot every time Bill Clinton talks about “budget surpluses” or Sen. John McCain pushes “campaign-finance reform.” “Po some degree, Perot can claim victory: Both major parties have co-opted Reform issues, and no other non-politician in U.S. history who sought the presidency on a third party ticket received such a high percentage of the vote. (Whig-American candidate Millard Fillmore in 1856 and Bull Moose Progressive Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 achieved higher percentages, but both had previously occupied the White House.)

Buchanan’s legacy is also assured, whatever the outcome in November. Buchanan will be remembered for the damage he inflicted on President George Bush in the 1992 Republican primaries. (Sen. Eugene McCarthy did similar damage to Lyndon Johnson in 1968, forcing him to withdraw from the race.) Nor are the most important issues raised by Buchanan and Nader—American interventionism, trade, and immigration—going to disappear. Millions of Americans living outside the Beltway are affected by these issues, and they are not going away—despite being ignored by the sleepwalkers.

But Buchanan and Nader are operating at a severe disadvantage. Neither has held elective public office. The most successful third-party candidates (except for Perot) held office before or during their candidacies: Martin Van Buren (1848), Fillmore (1856), John C. Breckinridge and John Bell (1860), Roosevelt (1912), Robert La Follette (1924), and Wallace (1968). No other third-party candidate since 1824 has achieved a double-digit percentage of the vote. Henry Clay and William Crawford reached double digits in 1824, but like the winner, John Quincy Adams, and the runner-up, Andrew Jackson, they were regional candidates of the now-defunct Democratic-Republican Party. Breckinridge was nominated by the Southern Democrats, who demanded that the Democratic Party include a plank stating that slavery would be protected not only in the South but in the U.S. territories. Breckinridge was Vice President at the time, and he received 18 percent of the vote. Bell was nominated by the Constitutional Union Party, created in 1859 by factions of the Whig and American (Know-Nothing) parties. A former U.S. senator from Tennessee who had also served as speaker of the house. Bell received 12.6 percent on a platform that emphasized preservation of the Union. Van Buren, a former U.S. president, was picked by the anti-slavery Free Soil Party, and received ten percent. The 1948 election is sometimes cited by pundits as an example of third-party influence. But States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) nominee Strom Thurmond received only 2.4 percent, and Progressive Henry Wallace even less.

A Senator Buchanan from Virginia or a Representative Nader from Connecticut would probably fare better in November. Both also face onerous ballot-access laws, which the major parties use to restrict political competition. A considerable amount of a third party’s resources are spent on qualifying for the ballot. This is money that is unavailable for advertising and get-out-the-vote drives in the fall. Still, ballot-access laws were used in 1860 to keep Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln off a quarter of the state ballots, but in a four-way race, he was able to achieve victory.

Denied the possibility of electoral votes and the status afforded by public office, the best prospects for Buchanan and Nader remain in the swing states that will decide the election. A strong performance by Nader in California could cost Gore the White House, while a good showing by Buchanan in the Rust Belt states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could prevent Bush from avenging his father’s defeat in 1992.

In two books published in the 1990’s (Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics and Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity), Kevin Phillips describes many of the issues that appeal to today’s independents. These issues could be exploited by a shrewd populist, either from the left or the right. But this year? In mid-2000, Phillips wrote:

If Buchanan focuses on the populist, nationalist, isolationist and cultural right, his potential 8 percent to 12 percent of the vote would come largely from Bush and the Republicans. The 1990s trend within the Group of Seven major Western industrial nations has been for breakaway right-wing or right-center populist parties to undermine governing conservative coalitions: the radical right in Italy and France, and the Reform parties in both Canada and the United States. Buchanan might hope for a similar role. If Nader outscores Buchanan, Gore becomes the clear underdog. But if Buchanan builds a European-style party with overtones of nationalism, isolationism and anti-immigrant politics, plus elements of the Christian right. Bush is probably the one in trouble.

This is the optimistic view.

The biggest obstacle faced by both Buchanan and Nader is the public’s perception that the economy is booming and we are living in prosperous times. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there were 20 recessions during the 20th century, and only a handful occurred in a presidential election year. Third-party candidates have always fared better in times of economic uncertainty or recession—Perot in 1992 being the most recent example. It is more difficult to convince voters to cast ballots against the Democrats and Republicans when they believe they are prospering. Many Americans are convinced that they will become millionaires because of an unprecedented bull market. Our millionaire culture is one of the greatest sales jobs in American history. It manifests itself not only among those using their personal computers to trade on Wall Street but also in popular TV shows such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?, and (my nominee for most honest title) Greed.

The bull is running despite a veritable flow of U.S. government reports documenting the decline of high-wage manufacturing jobs; the increase of low-paying, part-time service-sector positions; the elimination of true middle-class pensions (defined benefit plans, not portable 401Ks); and dangerous consumer debt levels.

In a recent issue of Forbes, Peter Brimelow uses government data to report that interest on consumer debt—excluding mortgage interest—as a share of disposable (after-tax) income has reached an unprecedented level: The Federal Reserve estimates that, in 1998, average family debt-service burden, including interest and principal, was 14.5 percent, up from 12.7 percent in 1989. “This unprecedented burden now exists despite the fact that disposable income has been increasing rapidly and consumer credit is no longer tax-deductible,” Brimelow notes. More ominously, this debt has piled higher during a period of disinflation, with falling interest rates and bond yields. (The yield on the bellwether 30-year U.S. Treasury bond fell more than 1,000 basis points from its peak in the early 1980’s.

The sleepwalkers discount rising consumer debt, preferring to view it “as a percentage of some other statistic” that is also rising. But the real debt burden will become clear when interest rates rise or a recession ensues. “As a fraction of disposable personal income . . . , ” Brimelow writes, “total household debt was typically 60 to 70 percent until the early 1980s. Since then it has risen steadily. In 1999 (third quarter) the ratio stood at 95 percent.” Some who are assuming these debt levels are engaging in conspicuous consumption, living beyond their economic means. But marry others, especially in the industrial heartland, have been forced to do so to sustain the pretense of a middle-class lifestyle. Their debt burdens will become difficult, if not impossible, to maintain during the next recession; when that contraction hits, they are more likely to vote for an economic populist who offers change.

Bush and the Republicans are counting on “the investor class” to defeat Gore. A populist Capitol Hill staffer observes, “Republicans really believe that what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” They may succeed in this election, but they cannot repeal the business cycle. Sleepwalker claims of a “New Paradigm” notwithstanding, the current economic expansion will eventually end in a recession.

Which candidate—Buchanan or Nader—made the following remark about the World Trade Organization? “The WTO undermines our legitimate local, state, and national sovereignties.” Which one made the following statement about NAFTA? “the elitist architects of GATT and NAFTA have locked arms with their corporate cohorts to support a trade policy that is neither fair nor free.” (Nader made the former statement, Buchanan the latter.) If Nader and Buchanan combined can achieve double-digits in key swing states, the biggest surprise will occur after the election: the emergence of a new populist coalition or fusion of ideas, if not a merger of the Green and Reform parties. History shows co-optation will follow.