Presidential insurgency-candidacies from 1992 to 2016
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 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 close to three percent 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 also ran for the Presidency, but he was a very negligible 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 emerged -- Ron Paul, whose candidacy was also generally compared to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968. Unlike Buchanan, who had never held major public office, Paul had held elected office for over thirty years as a U.S. Congressman from Texas. The media ignored him as much as possible, although various smear attempts were also made. It’s possible that 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 appeared in 2008 that the Republican and Democratic Party establishments and the media were more centered on the "recognized frontrunners" than in earlier years. In 2008, 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.
It should be noted that, nevertheless, Buchanan and Ron Paul were 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 promised to take America out of increasingly unpopular wars, could make a far better appeal to very diverse sectors of the American populace. It was 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 offered 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 were very prominent), promising simply peace.
In 2008, Ron Paul declined to run as a third-party or independent candidate for the Presidency, despite the fact that at the time -- the Republican Party nomination – or even merely some possibility of a meaningful role for him among the Republicans – were clearly denied to him by various entrenched interests. In his 2012 primary run, Ron Paul did better than in 2008, but he was again sidelined by the Republican Party establishment.
Mitt Romney ran a lackluster and timid campaign against Obama. In fact, he didn’t go after Obama and his policies with one-tenth of the zeal he recently showed in lambasting Donald Trump, the insurgent-candidate of 2016.
Donald Trump, a self-made billionaire, combines policy aspects of both Buchanan and Ron Paul. He especially appeals to working class people, and those weary of interminable wars and commitments abroad. The fact that he had a major show on network television, makes him a better known quantity to many people. The fact he is personally very wealthy, means to many people, that “he can’t be bought” by the Washington power-brokers and “insiders”. He also follows two terms of Obama, and two terms of George W. Bush, both of which – it could be argued -- have been disastrous for America. The situation is, arguably, so much precipitously worse than it was in 1992 or 1996. People have grown so desperate that Trump’s abrasiveness and numerous faults are overlooked – as he is seen as an “anti-Establishment candidate”. The fact that Trump was able to prevail against the Republican Party establishment which pulled out all stops to defeat him, is in itself surprising.
Bernie Sanders is also an insurgent-candidate, whose message, ironically, somewhat resonates with that of Donald Trump. However, Sanders has been unable to overcome the Democratic Party establishment that has delivered the nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump is, indeed, a Presidential insurgency-candidate who has been able to secure a major party nomination. It remains to be seen whether he can prevail in November.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.