Presidential insurgency-candidacies from 1992 to 2008
By Mark Wegierski
In 1992, Pat Buchanan launched his insurgency-candidacy for the Republican nomination against a sitting president. The candidacy was in itself helpful to the Republican Party, as it considerably dampened down the public profile of the run by the notorious David Duke. Indeed, the National Review of that time urged a vote for Buchanan in the New Hampshire primary. However, after considerable success in New Hampshire, when it appeared that Buchanan might have a slim chance of winning the nomination, he was buried by a firestorm of media and establishment Republican criticism.
Some have argued that Buchanan's strong showing in the nomination battle forced George H. W. Bush to offer him the keynote address at the Republican Party nomination convention. This offer supposedly panicked "centrist" voters to move away from the Republican Party. Most of the media interpretations of the speech were tendentious. A more plausible explanation was that the tedious pragmatism of George H. W. Bush drove considerable numbers of Republicans to vote for the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot -- effectively delivering the victory to Bill Clinton.
In contesting the 1996 Republican nomination against the lackluster Robert Dole, Buchanan repeated his success in New Hampshire, this time winning the state with 60 percent of the Republican primary vote. Since it seemed that Robert Dole would not be a strong challenge to Bill Clinton, rank-and-file Republicans could have considered a dark-horse candidate. Nevertheless, the Republican establishment, cheered on by the media, again turned ferociously against Buchanan, thus denying him the nomination. Robert Dole went on to lose disastrously to Bill Clinton.
In November 2000, however, Buchanan mustered no more than a half percent of the nation-wide vote, as the Reform Party candidate -- and was unsupported by party founder Ross Perot. The election was so close that only a slight increase in Buchanan's vote might have sunk George W. Bush. At the same time, Ralph Nader's three percent or so of the vote (under the banner of the Green Party), clearly weakened Al Gore. Surviving the various Gore challenges to the outcome of the election, George W. Bush was finally confirmed as U.S. President-Elect in December. (It was said by some that putting Buchanan's name first on the ballot in Florida caused some confused Democrats to vote for him in error -- in effect, taking votes away from Gore.)
Ironically, a very dynamic, third-party Buchanan candidacy in 2004 might well have delivered the election to John Kerry. The Left's strategizing on how to stop George W. Bush had not considered that providing huge funds for a Buchanan third-party candidacy might have been efficacious. In 2004, Ralph Nader ran for the Presidency as an independent candidate (rather than under the Green Party banner), but his candidacy was a negligible factor. Michael Peroutka of the Constitution Party and Michael Badnarik of the Libertarian Party went absolutely nowhere. In 2008, Nader’s recently announced run for the Presidency is not expected to be much of a factor – except perhaps in putting a little further pressure on the Democrats to move their agenda leftward.
In the 2008 battle for the Republican Party Presidential nomination, another dark-horse candidate had emerged -- Ron Paul, whose candidacy is also generally compared to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. As far as the Democrats in 2008, Barack Obama -- and also the lesser-profile candidates like Dennis Kucinich -- may have laid claim to a kind of idealistic underdog ambience. Indeed, Barack Obama has leveraged that kind of underdog ambience to put himself into real contention for the nomination. And, with his dignified withdrawal from the race, John Edwards seems to be positioning himself to be the indispensable vice-presidential candidate with either Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton. Unlike Buchanan, who never held major public office, Paul has held elected office for over thirty years as a U.S. congressman from Texas. The media have ignored him as much as possible, although various smear attempts have been made. However, the Internet offers more chances to build a groundswell of support for a dark-horse candidacy despite the media.
Buchanan's candidacies in 1992 and 1996 took place before the emergence of the Internet as a truly mass-medium in the late-1990s. Despite the potential boost of the Internet, some commentators have argued that the tighter campaign finance regulations and the accelerated primary season work against dark-horse candidates. It also appears that the Republican and Democratic Party establishments and the media are more centered on the "recognized frontrunners" than in earlier years. Some commentators have noted that the Republican primaries were mostly "winner-take-all" which favored whoever quickly emerged as the front-runner. It has been calculated that, given a more proportional allocation of delegates in the Republican primary voting system, the gap between McCain and the others would have been only a handful of delegates. However, the Democratic primaries were mostly based on proportional allocation of delegates -- which probably prevented Hillary Clinton from racking up a decisive, early lead. It could be argued that the Republican system played to the Republican Party establishment, while the Democratic system accentuated their (left-wing) fringe. Ironically, the outcome of the Democratic Party nomination battle may now come down to the “superdelegates” – who are there “ex officio” rather than through a process of popular selection in the primaries.
It should be noted that, nevertheless, Buchanan and Paul are in many aspects of their ideas and image, considerably different. Buchanan was and is easily seen as a highly controversial, combative, and abrasive figure. Paul, the genial country doctor, who promises to take America out of an increasingly unpopular war, can today make a far better appeal to very diverse sectors of the American populace. It is easier for many people to see in Paul the decency and idealism of a traditionalist dissent against the current-day behemoth-state. In marked contrast to what were mainly the domestically-focused politics of Buchanan's sharply defined class-war (raised most prominently in the recession of the early 1990s), Paul offers mainly the politics of a happy, hopeful message of a thoughtful re-evaluation of America's relations to the world (raised in a time of unpopular foreign wars, when anti-imperialist sentiments are very prominent), promising simply peace.
Some commentators have suggested that the denouement of the Ron Paul movement will be the launching of a third-party or independent run for the Presidency, when the Republican Party nomination – or even merely some possibility of a meaningful role for him among the Republicans – are clearly denied to him by various entrenched interests. Such a candidacy might garner enough votes to put either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton into the White House. This could be a salutary shock therapy for the Republican Party establishment, which might push its members to be more receptive in the future to a more authentic conservatism and traditional understanding of the U.S. Constitution.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.