A Third Choice Complete Transcript
BYSTANDER: Our country needs cleaning up badly.
BYSTANDER: I think both parties have failed in a lot of ways. And we sometimes wish that we could have another party.
MR. BEN WATTENBERG: When many Americans are dissatisfied with our two major parties, which is often the case, third parties, or independent candidates, step in, providing choices or identifying new or passionate concerns among voters.
Campaign 2000 is no different.
MR. RALPH NADER: I welcome and am honored to accept your nomination for president of the United States.
MR. WATTENBERG: When Americans demand a third choice, or even a fourth choice, it can change and renew the major parties, sometimes making winners into losers and vice versa.
Hello. I am Ben Wattenberg.
More often than you might think, Americans have looked beyond the two major political parties and reached for a third choice. When they do, big things often happen in American politics and in American life.
Let's start at the beginning. First, why two parties? In fact, why parties at all?
In the beginning, the founders agreed they wanted no parties in their new country.
"There is nothing I dread so much as the division of the Republic into two great parties, each under its leader"
- John Adams.
"Ignorance leads men into a party, and shame keeps them from getting out again"
- Benjamin Franklin
"If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all"
- Thomas Jefferson.
MR. WATTENBERG: When the framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, the Constitution they drafted made no mention of parties at all.
MR. MICHAEL BARONE: I think the Founding Fathers, they were operating from a perspective where they had the English experience in view, they had the experience of the Italian city-state, the Roman republic, the Greek polis; where they felt that parties tended to be kind of illegitimate. There was still a feeling in the air that, to systematically oppose the people that were in charge of the government, which is what an opposition party does typically, was somehow illegitimate and you really shouldn't do that.
MR. WATTENBERG: Despite that, the seeds of today's two-party political system were soon planted during the first administration of the first American president, George Washington. Washington's cabinet included two brilliant and powerful men with opposing views of America's future: Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state; and Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury. Jefferson hoped America would remain a nation of independent farmers and yeomen like those in his home state of Virginia, and so he wanted to limit the federal government and leave important decisions to the states.
"I am for preserving to the states the powers not yielded by them to the Union." - Thomas Jefferson.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hamilton thought America should become a unified industrial nation which required a strong federal government able to stand equal to the great powers of Europe.
"Let the 13 states, bound together in a strict and indissoluble union, concur in erecting one great American system able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and new world." - Alexander Hamilton.
MR. WATTENBERG: Over the course of his presidency, Washington grew increasingly worried that the rift between Hamilton and Jefferson would develop into what was called factions.
"Let me warn you, in the most solemn manner, against the baneful effects of the spirit of party." - George Washington.
MR. THEODORE LOWI: The founders were universally and unanimously against political parties. George Washington's Farewell Address warned America about two things: Beware entangling alliances -- that is, be isolationist in the world; and the second one was, beware the baneful influence of party. So our father of our country voices this warning eight years into the republic, at the end of his two terms of office, at the very moment when the parties are forming.
MR. WATTENBERG: Just as Washington had feared, by the election of 1800, parties had formed. The Democratic Republicans rallied behind Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, who supported Hamilton's ideas, backed incumbent president John Adams. Jefferson won. America now had two parties. Why not more?
MR. STEVEN ROSENSTONE: The rules of the game are stacked against third parties in this country, and I don't think it's because the founders intentionally understood or decided that they were going to make it a two-party system. In fact, the founders didn't even talk about parties in any of the documents or debates. Simply put, any system of elections where winner takes all by plurality is a system that favors two parties.
MR. WATTENBERG: Winner-take-all elections. Here's what it means. Let's say you have two candidates running for president. If Candidate A gets 51 percent of the vote in a state, and Candidate B gets 49 percent, Candidate A gets 100 percent of that state's electoral votes, and Candidate B gets nothing.
MR. LOWI: This literally discourages new parties because of the psychology of the wasted vote. If there are two guys running and there's a third guy comes along, he has no chance of winning, though I prefer him -- in those days they were all "him" -- then it's better to cast your vote for the lesser of the two evils between the two major guys.
MR. WATTENBERG: And so, despite the founders' early intentions, America ended up with political parties, two of them, and the rules of the game made it difficult for any additional party to win the allegiance of voters. Difficult, but not impossible. In 1826, a third choice party emerged. It was founded on a conspiracy theory concerning a secret society that built this monument to its most famous member, George Washington. That society was the Masons.
The original 13 colonies had restricted voting rights to white male property owners, but the new states to the west extended the franchise to workers, tenant farmers and artisans. One by one, the older eastern states followed their lead. Alas, women and blacks were still excluded.
MR. BARONE: Third parties have risen up usually in situations where one or, really, both of the two parties leave a kind of vacuum, leave a major political point of view in this diverse country unrepresented in a political contest.
MR. WATTENBERG: The first third party tapped into just such an unrepresented political view -- the resentment by new voters toward the American establishment. Many in that establishment were members of the exclusive Masonic Order, a powerful secret society devoted to good works and what we might today call networking. In fact, most of the Founding Fathers had been Masons, including Washington, who was sometimes portrayed wearing a Masonic apron and used a Masonic Bible to take his oath of office.
MR. ROBERT REMINI: Unless you were a Mason, you could not advance in law, you could not advance in business, you could not advance in anything.
MR. WATTENBERG: Many of those shut out of the system began to believe there was a plan, a conspiracy to shut them out. And then something happened to confirm their worst fears -- a renegade Mason named William Morgan disappeared.
MR. REMINI: He got into a quarrel with his fellow Masons and threatened to reveal the secrets of the Order. He was arrested on trumped-up charges, I think, and eventually he disappeared, and many believe he was taken from prison and drowned in the Niagara River. The disappearance of Morgan and his presumed murder aroused the people of Western New York to such a fever pitch, and this developed almost instantaneously into a political move to get rid of all Masons in public office -- at least, that was something the people could do.
MR. WATTENBERG: As anti-masonic feelings rose, the two major parties were going through big changes. By 1832 the Federalists were gone. The Democratic Republicans split into two parties, each lined up behind a powerful national figure. Followers of President Andrew Jackson were Democrats; supporters of Senator Henry Clay were Whigs. They complained that Jackson was trying to increase the power of the presidency. And they called him King Andrew.
In the election of 1832 it was Jackson versus Clay.
MR. REMINI: His supporters told him to renounce his membership in the Masonic Party, which he refused to do. And, of course, Andrew Jackson was considered, quote, "a grand king of the Masonic Order." So the Masonic groups could not have anything to do with him. They had to get a third candidate. So they formed the third party, national party. They had state parties by that time. And they held the first national nominating convention and ironically put up a former Mason in William Wirth. And he took votes from both candidates.
MR. WATTENBERG: How did the anti-masons fare? The Democrats won the election of 1832. Struggling against the third party wasted vote syndrome, the anti-masons won just 8 percent. But that doesn't mean they were a total failure. Membership in the Masonic Order dropped from 100,000 to 40,000, largely due to anti-masonic pressure.
MR. WATTENBERG: The anti-masons didn't stick around long. By 1840 they were history. They never did build a national constituency. And that's a pattern that many third parties have since followed. But, the anti-masons did inspire the two major parties to compete for those newly enfranchised workers and farmers.
Soon the Whigs and Democrats started breaking apart over a far more important issue, slavery. That opened one of the most important debates in American history, and it begins the story of the only third party candidate to actually win the White House. That remarkable man was Abraham Lincoln, whose life began in the backwoods of Kentucky and ended right here at Ford's Theater in downtown Washington D.C.
Mid-19th century America was divided into three political regions: the free states of the North, where the Industrial Revolution was blooming; the slave states of the South, where cotton was king; and the Wild West. The overriding political question of the day was whether slavery would be allowed in the West. Under the leadership of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, Southerners dominated the Congress, but they worried that if too many Western territories entered the Union as "free states", the balance of power would tip to the North's advantage and slavery would ultimately be outlawed nationwide.
MR. DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Southerners felt obliged to be united, in public at any rate, behind the institution of slavery. Nobody could afford to come out in the South and say slavery is wrong, or we ought to do something to end it, we ought to gradually to emancipate.
MR. WATTENBERG: The slavery debate cut across party lines. Both the Democrats and the Whigs faced bitter differences within their parties.
MR. DONALD: Anti-slavery Whigs were called the "Conscience Whigs" in contrast to the "Cotton Whigs" -- the Cotton Whigs being those in league with, as the anti-slavery people said, "the lords of the loom and the lords of the lash" -- in other words, the people who produced cotton and the people who made cotton cloth.
MR. WATTENBERG: Increasingly, the Democrats became the party of the pro-slavery South. The Whigs remained divided. In a time of political upheaval, small new parties began to spring up, like the Anti-Slavery Free-Soilers and the Anti-Immigration American Party.
Then in 1854, Congress passed the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed those two states to decide the slavery question for themselves.
MR. DONALD: To anti-slavery people, this was a signal flag that something very wrong had occurred. There had been, they felt, a moral decision to keep slavery out of those territories, and it didn't take a lot of imagination to say, "Okay, if you can bring slavery into Kansas, Nebraska, these areas where slavery always had been prohibited, what was to keep us -- slavery from going elsewhere?"
MR. WATTENBERG: In the North, anti-slavery activists began to hold assemblies. A lawyer named Alvin Bovay called a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin on March 20th, 1854.
"We went into the meeting Whigs, Free Soilers and Democrats. We came out Republicans." Alvin Bovay.
MR. WATTENBERG: "Republicans" because they believed that they were the true descendents of Jefferson's Democratic Republican Party. In 1856, the new Republican Party met in the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. They nominated Colonel John. C. Fremont, the popular California senator, to be their first presidential candidate. Their slogan was: "Free Soil, Free Speech and Fremont!" Remarkably, Fremont came in second in a three-way race. The Republicans, in the space of just two years, had replaced a major party, the Whigs.
MR. DONALD: By 1860, things had changed considerably, because by that point, it's clear that a Republican, if a strong candidate, is surely going to win. So a lot of Republicans who had been hiding behind the bushes in 1856 now suddenly emerged and they all were really all gung-ho.
In all of this hullabaloo, Abraham Lincoln and his friends watched circumstances very closely, and they made this kind of judgment; that is, that Lincoln would appear on the scene as the first choice of only Illinois and possibly Indiana. He, on the other hand, might be the second choice of a great many of these other candidates. And when they got into the convention, they would, in effect, kill each other off, and there, presto, is Abraham Lincoln standing as the only survivor. And that is exactly what happened, just according to Lincoln's schedule.
MR. WATTENBERG: The election of 1860 was a four-way race. Lincoln faced a split Democratic Party. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat, carried the official designation. John Breckinridge ran as a Southern Democrat. Senator John Bell carried the banner of the new pro-slavery Constitutional Union Party. Lincoln won the election by carrying the North. He got 39.8 percent of the popular vote, the smallest percentage ever to propel a candidate into the White House.
Southern secession now seemed inevitable. The stage was set for the Civil War.
Lincoln's great and tragic presidency changed American politics and American life. The Civil War raged for four years. Six hundred and twenty thousand Americans were killed. But Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves, and the defeat of the South by Lincoln's army finally settled the slavery issue.
So for the first and the only time in our history, a third party replaced one of the major parties and saw its presidential nominee elected to office.
Abraham Lincoln's assassination did not mean the demise of the new Republican Party; quite the contrary. After the war, the Republicans remained vibrant, one of the country's two dominant parties. Therefore, what? While it is very hard for a third party to prevail in our two-party system, it can be done.
For the Republicans of the 1850s, it took an issue that was beyond compromise, slavery, which fatally weakened a major party, the Whigs, and it took one of America's greatest leaders, perhaps the greatest, Abraham Lincoln.
America settled back into the old two-party system, but these two parties would soon be tested by new issues.
The Industrial Revolution went to full throttle. Huge numbers of Americans moved west. The railroads bound the country together. By 1890, 125,000 miles of track stretched from coast to coast and from North to South.
But power, money, production, and political influence became concentrated in the Northeast. Both the Republican and Democratic parties were accused of falling under the sway of financiers.
"We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized. If not met and overthrown at once, it forebodes terrible social convulsions." -- Ignatius Donnelly.
MR. WATTENBERG: Farmers in the West and South were hard hit by the changing economy. They were often in debt. They were increasingly dependent on the railroad. They blamed eastern interests for their plight, and the same kind of anti-elitist resentments that had fueled the anti-Masons would now launch another political movement.
MR. DONALD RITCHIE: The conditions in Kansas were pretty raw and pretty rugged. The economy went from prosperity to poverty very quickly, and people were astonished by it. You had a lot of farmers who were doing everything they could and yet could not survive. They were going to lose their property to the banks, to mortgages; they saw banks sort of sucking away everything that they'd ever worked for, and so they turned toward political candidates who spoke their language; who told them to get out there and raise less corn and more hell.
MR. WATTENBERG: Dozens of small parties sprang up, each with a program of change. The Prohibition Party, the Greenback Labor Party, the Union Labor Party, the Socialist Party, just to begin a very long list.
MR. ROSENSTONE: It's very easy to see, for example, in the period prior to the Civil War, the role that third parties were playing vis-a-vis the slavery issue as a way of forcing the hand of one of the parties on that issue. It's very easy to see, in the closing decades of the 19th century, as the forces of agrarianism, the forces of soft money, the forces against railroad monopoly, were trying to push the hand of one of the parties.
MR. WATTENBERG: By 1892, many farmers were angry with the major parties, so they launched their own, the People's Party, also called the Populists. They were so-called soft-money advocates, rejecting the gold standard. They favored basing the currency on a combination of gold and silver, which would cause inflation, making it easier for farmers to pay off their debts. In 1892, the People's Party ran James P. Weaver of Iowa for president. Democrat Grover Cleveland won and Democrats captured the Congress. The new Populist Party received 9 percent of the vote.
Then came the great depression of 1893. Populist leader Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington demanding public works programs to provide jobs. Democrats were blamed for the country's economic distress.
MR. RITCHIE: In 1893 you have the depression; in 1894 the Republicans come back with a vengeance. But in 1896 you have Democrats nominating a fiery young former Democratic congressman from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, a great orator who steals one of the big issues of the Populists, the issue of free silver.
"You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." -- William Jennings Bryan
MR. RITCHIE: There's a lot of talk that the children's story, the "Wizard of Oz," is really a Populist fable. It was written by L. Frank Baum, whose father was an investor in gold and who was very suspicious, apparently, of these western political movements. And if you read the story, it starts with a very bleak scene in Kansas; farmers just eking by in terrible drought conditions. And suddenly, a tornado, a storm rushes through the state and sweeps everything up in its path the way Populism swept across Kansas. Now, little Dorothy is whisked off to this strange land, where she is given a pair of silver shoes in the book, not ruby shoes that they did in the movie. And she is told to follow a Yellow Brick Road. And this is bi-metalism, silver and gold, as the path to your future.
And she encounters some strange people along the way. She encounters a Straw Man, who presumably represents the farmers. The Straw Man has no brain. She encounters a Tin Man, who presumably represents the workers. He has no heart. And then she encounters a Cowardly Lion, who is all roar but no strength. And presumably, he represents the radical agitators who run around speaking for the Populist Movement.
And when they finally get to Oz, they meet the Wizard. And he is a carnival huckster from Omaha, Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan's hometown, and he is a hot-air balloonist. And he winds up going off and leaving poor Dorothy stranded, but she manages to get back home.
And when she finally gets back to Kansas in the end, she says, "There's no place like home" -- and she is not leaving again -- since the farmers will return to their traditional parties and not be swept up into the whirlwind, because the Wizard is really a phony.
MR. WATTENBERG: Many political observers said that Bryan and the Populists swallowed the Democratic Party whole. Bryan and the Democrats would carry the banner of free silver.
So the populists had responded to new issues with new ideas. Those ideas then found a home in one of the two major parties, the Democrats, now under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, who was actually called a "Popocrat." Once again, the two major parties presented voters with a clear choice on the important issues of the day. The two-party system was revitalized -- for a while.
Look at that animal: "I feel as fit as a bull moose, and you can use me to the limit." That's what Teddy Roosevelt said as he readied himself for a political drama that would change the nature of America from that day to this.
The dawn of the 20th century saw a further expansion of American industrial power. The popular view was that a few so-called captains of industry were creating new financial empires and far beneath them, a growing and restless proletariat was ripe for revolution.
Between the super rich and the working masses, the middle class felt a sense of alarm. Their concern would spark a new political movement, the Progressives. At first glance Republican Theodore Roosevelt seemed an unlikely champion for the Progressives. He was the wealthy heir to a New York fortune, a hero of the Spanish American War. In 1900 he had been elected vice president on a ticket headed by Republican William McKinley. Then in 1901, McKinley was shot and killed. Roosevelt became president.
In Congress, the leader of the Progressives was Republican Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.
MR. JOHN GABLE: LaFollette's idea was that you put out pristine -- the ideal into the legislative cauldron, be that in Wisconsin or Washington when he was in the U.S. Senate. And then you keep fighting for it, day after day, year after year, till you get it in the right form. LaFollette said that TR was too much of a compromiser and was willing to settle for half a loaf. And TR would have readily agreed, "Yes, I'll settle for half a loaf rather than nothing."
MR. WATTENBERG: But after reelection in 1904, Roosevelt became a vocal proponent of the progressive cause. He took on the great monopolies, regulated the railroads and established safety standards for food, drugs and the workplace. In 1908, Roosevelt's vice president and handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was elected. Under Taft, the rift between conservative and progressive Republicans deepened. Taft sided with the pro-business conservatives. Roosevelt went off to hunt lions in Africa. When he returned, this king of the political jungle did not like what he saw.
MR. GABLE: When he came back, in 1910, he found the party completely in shambles and completely split between its conservative and progressive elements -- the insurgents and the stand-patters, as they were called. He was then urged by the progressives to get involved on their side.
MR. WATTENBERG: In June of 1912, Republicans gathered to choose a presidential candidate at their convention in Chicago. Teddy Roosevelt lost. When Taft was renominated, Roosevelt and his fellow progressives took a walk. Within days, they formed a new party.
"There is no danger of a revolution in this country, but there is grave discontent and unrest. Unhampered by tradition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, this new party offers itself as the instrument of the people to build a new and healthier government." -- Theodore Roosevelt.
MR. WATTENBERG: The Bull-Moosers supported progressive reforms. These people believed in good government. They didn't think bureaucracy was a four-letter word. They favored voting rights for women, regulation of big business, ending child labor, and lower tariffs.
MR. GABLE: And this was to be no mere vote for the day. It was to replace the Republican Party. It was to realign the party system. Why should there be parties divided into wings? There were, in a sense, four parties: progressive Democrats, conservative Democrats, stand-pat Republicans, progressive Republicans; why shouldn't there be a progressive party and a conservative party? So they were going along to make this realignment.
MR. WATTENBERG: In 1912, the progressives ran strong, but by splitting the Republican vote, they allowed Wilson, the Democrat, to win with 42 percent. Roosevelt, however, came in second with 27 percent. And a fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, running on the Socialist Party ticket, got 6 percent of the vote.
MR. WATTENBERG: Bull Moose candidates ran for Congress during the midterm elections of 1914; but without Theodore Roosevelt there to head a presidential ticket, the Bull-Moosers did poorly.
MR. ROSENSTONE: In the 19th century, the parties existed as an entity, and then went out and found themselves a leader. In the 20th century, it's almost exactly the opposite. It's hard to imagine some of the movements of the 20th century existing without the leader. There would have been no Bull Moose candidacy or Bull Moose campaign in 1912 if it weren't for Theodore Roosevelt deciding he was going to challenge the president.
MR. RITCHIE: What seemed -- at that point, in 1912, 1914, seemed like the beginnings of a new political order evaporated very quickly and had no staying power at all. And if Theodore Roosevelt couldn't do it, then the question was, who could? Could anybody really create a third party on a permanent basis, or were third parties best to be temporary shocks to the system to force the major parties to adopt issues that the third parties originated and believed in and campaigned on?
MR. WATTENBERG: Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party was a classic third-party enterprise. The party didn't last, but the message did. Both major parties ended up embracing much of the progressive agenda. Many of Roosevelt's followers drifted back to the Republican Party, but the GOP could no longer make a special claim as the party of reform. It was President Wilson and the Democrats who reorganized the banking system, lowered tariffs, created the Department of Labor, and provided federal aid to education and farming.
Then, with almost clockwork regularity, third parties continued to help shape America. In 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won the White House. The Democratic coalition he assembled would come to dominate national politics.
But by 1948 two factions within that party, one on the right and one on the left, launched third- and fourth-party bids for the White House. It was a signal that Franklin Roosevelt's fragile Democratic coalition was very fragile.
ANNOUNCER: The chair declares that Henry A. Wallace has been unanimously nominated by this convention as the candidate of the Progressive Party for the office of president of the United States. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. WATTENBERG: In 1948 the Cold War was brand-new. Some Americans favored a more conciliatory stance toward the Soviet Union, and some left-wing Democrats abandoned the party to back a liberal, Henry Wallace, for president. They appropriated the name of the old Progressive Party.
Then, as if the Cold War weren't divisive enough, the Democratic Party split over another explosive issue: civil rights. The white South had been solidly Democratic and segregationist since the end of the Civil War. It was thought that no Democrat could win the White House without Southern support, including incumbent President Harry Truman.
MR. EARL BLACK: For generations, the Southern Democrats had had enough leverage within the Democratic Party to suppress any issues related to civil rights. Harry Truman broke that as president. He came out in favor of a civil rights bill. The bill didn't pass. The Southern Democrats in the Congress defeated it. But by 1948 Truman's record had angered the segregationist Southern Democrats to the point that there was a rebellion.
MR. WATTENBERG: Southern Democrats angrily walked out of the 1948 convention and formed the new States' Rights Party. They were soon dubbed Dixiecrats.
SEN. STROM THURMOND (R-SC): It simply means that it's another effort on the part of this president to dominate the country by force and to put into effect these uncalled-for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights, and I'll tell you --
SEN. THURMOND: I had no idea I'd be nominated for the president there, but it turned out I was nominated. And Governor Fielding Wright was nominated for vice president. And we accepted the nomination in Texas later and headed the ticket of that third-party ticket.
MR. WATTENBERG: So in 1948 there were three presidential candidates with roots in the Democratic Party: President Truman; Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat; and Henry Wallace, the Progressive. They faced just one Republican, the governor of New York, Thomas Dewey.
SEN. THURMOND: I thought Dewey would probably be elected. Everywhere Dewey went, the press was trailing him, everybody was trailing him, saying he was the next president. And the odds seemed to be strongly in his favor. Turned out it wasn't.
MR. WATTENBERG: In the biggest upset in American history, Harry Truman carried the day, with 49.6 percent of the popular vote. Dewey got 45 percent. Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace won 2.4 percent each -- pretty small potatoes. But consider this: Henry Wallace didn't carry a single state and didn't get a single electoral vote. Thurmond's vote was concentrated in the South, and he carried four states and 39 electoral votes. For the first time since 1876, the solid South did not stay solidly Democratic.
Fifteen years later, the Democrats' hold on Southern voters would be shaken again.
MR. STEPHAN LESHER: The interesting thing about Wallace is that he seemingly came from nowhere. Here he was, the governor of a very small, politically insignificant state for barely more than a year, and he suddenly was thrust into the national arena. He did it, of course, with his -- what he likes to talk about as his dramatic confrontation with the federal government -- nothing more dramatic than the famous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, where he succeeded for perhaps two hours, delaying the entrance of two black students.
MR. WATTENBERG: In 1964 George Wallace entered the Democratic presidential primaries. An important part of his message concerned race, but there were other themes as well.
MR. LESHER: What George Wallace found in the 1964 primary was that people of all stripes were flocking to him. Then he was finding, when he went to rallies, the response was overwhelming. Time and again, they would be talking about their own concerns, about their jobs and about crime, about keeping their home. I think that these people had some real concerns that were left unaddressed for years, and George Wallace was the first one to begin to scratch at that itch.
MR. WATTENBERG: To the shock of many Democrats, Wallace's appeal went beyond the South -- Wisconsin, 34 percent; Indiana, 30 percent; Maryland, 43 percent; and then in 1968, a third party. Wallace abandoned the Democrats to launch another bid for the presidency. His American Independent Party hit hard on the theme of law and order with racial overtones.
ANNOUNCER: Why are more and more millions of Americans turning to Governor Wallace? Open a little business and see what might happen.
GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: As president, I will stand up for your local police and firemen in protecting your safety and property.
MR. WATTENBERG: It was a time of big-city riots, rising crime, campus unrest and Vietnam War protests. Wallace spoke to those who were terrified and angry at what was happening in America.
GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: This country cannot survive if we allow the anarchists to ruin it. And everybody knows that. And both national parties are now talking about law and order. Well, they ought to talk about law and order. They took it away from the American people by not paying any attention to the average citizen.
GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: I want to say one thing. You're the kind of people that folks in this country are sick and tired of, too. (Cheers, applause.)
GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: I was fighting Naziism before you little punks were born. You remember that.
RICHARD NIXON: The worst crime wave we've ever had in our history, the highest taxes we've ever had in our history. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. WATTENBERG: Wallace's message resonated with many voters. As in earlier times, the two major parties moved to capture some of the constituency of the third-choice candidate.
MR. LESHER: In 1968, as Wallace was growing in the polls, climbing steadily, reaching over 22 percent just a month before the election, his key opponents, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, saw that they had to grab some of this. And both did the same thing. First they said their vote would be wasted if they voted for George Wallace because he can't get elected. "So elect me and I will carry the things you want into the White House." Nixon, of course, focused his entire campaign in the last month on the whole issue of law and order.
RICHARD NIXON (Political Advertisement): Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change, but in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence. Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.
MR. WATTENBERG: Richard Nixon won the 1968 election. Many Democrats who defected from their party would never return.
MR. EARL BLACK: The Wallace movement didn't last, but the Republican Party essentially absorbed many of the elements of the Wallace movement. They combined this with their base in the upper echelons of the southern economy. Country club Republicans historically were always there. And all of a sudden, the Republican Party becomes competitive.
MR. WATTENBERG: Wallace's third-choice candidacy led many southerners out of the Republican Party. And today, Republicans dominate the South.
The next third-party challenge would come not from the right or from the left, but from the middle; voters who have been called the radical center. In 1992, many of them would find a champion in a new, compelling independent candidate. Unlike many of his predecessors, he had never held public office, nor did he lay claim to a particular regional base. In fact, you might even say his real base was here on the set of CNN's "Larry King, Live" and subsequently on talk shows across America.
MR. WATTENBERG: Opinion polls showed voters disgusted with Washington politics, alienated from the parties and anxious about an economy going from local to global. H. Ross Perot was a plainspoken Texan and a billionaire.
MR. WATTENBERG: He claimed to be reluctant to leave private life.
LARRY KING: I received a call from John Hooker, in Tennessee, who was once a candidate for governor, a prominent Democrat. And he said, "I think Ross Perot is interested in running for president." And I asked him, "Are you interested?" And he said no. And then during the course of the program, about halfway in, people were calling in asking him questions about so many things. And I said, "Are you sure you're not interested?" And he said, "No, I really don't want to be president." And with five minutes left, I asked him, "Are there any circumstances under which you would run? Any?" And if you say no to that, you have taken yourself out. And he said, "Well, if I get on the ballot in all 50 states."
MR. WATTENBERG: Perot had a fortune of $3 billion, and he didn't mind spending it.
MR. ROSENSTONE: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 spent only about 60 cents on the dollar of what the major parties spent. John Anderson spent only about 50 cents on the dollar of what the major parties spent. Ross Perot in 1992 spent nearly $73 million, which was roughly $1.20 on the dollar that was spent by the major parties. Put differently, he out-spent the major-party candidates in 1992. That has never happened before.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the first of three debates among the major candidates for president of the United States.
MR. WATTENBERG: Perot's stature as a candidate also received a major boost from his participation in the 1992 presidential debates.
MR. ROSS PEROT: I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. (Laughter.) I don't have any experience in gridlocked government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. I don't have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world; the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialized world. But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done.
MR. ROSENSTONE: No other third-party candidate in modern history has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Democratic and Republican candidates in a series of presidential debates.
MR. WATTENBERG: Going into Election Day, polls showed Perot with 13 percent of the vote. Many experts thought his support would go down because of the "wasted vote" syndrome.
Bill Clinton won with 43 percent. George Bush received 37 percent. Perot got 19 percent, more than earlier polls had indicated, making him the most successful independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt.
MR. WATTENBERG: Perot's platform soon found its way into the mainstream political dialogue. The Republicans' Contract with America in 1994 called for term limits, campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, and a balanced budget.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ross Perot returned in 1996 - and this time he had a political party behind him. "United We Stand, America" was now the Reform Party. The 19 percent of the vote Perot received in 1992 entitled him to $29 million in federal funds for his 1996 campaign. But Perot didn't do so well his second time out. Why not? Many reasons have been offered.
MR. WHITE: The angry American of 1992 was a lot less angry in 1996. I think that was a huge difference between the two elections. In a way, it was the same Ross Perot and the same message, but the environments were totally different.
MR. PAUL HERRNSON: He had a credibility gap because of some of the things that took place in 1992, and he was looked at more closely and more seriously by the media, which became increasingly skeptical, as did many voters.
MR. WATTENBERG: And this time Perot and his running mate, Pat Choate, were excluded from the presidential debates. They were not pleased.
MR. PAT CHOATE: The Debate Commission itself is a private corporation that is headed by the two former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties. Traditionally, that commission operates in a manner to keep any independent or third party person out of the debates.
MR. PAUL KIRK: Only President Clinton and Senator Dole have a realistic chance as set forth in our criteria to be elected the next president of the United States.
MR. WATTENBERG: That view was protested in the courts and on the streets outside the Clinton-Dole debates. In November, President Clinton was re-elected but narrowly missed what he coveted, a majority. Bob Dole received 41 percent of the popular vote. Perot ended up with 8 percent - less than half the proportion he received in 1992. But even in defeat, Perot - like many third party candidates before him - could claim to have produced results.
MR. PEROT: Have you listened to the messages from the other parties during the last few weeks? Do their promises for 1996 sound familiar? Who first brought these issues to the American people? You did! Isn't it terrific that in just four years, they've repented, been reborn, and you are setting the agenda for '96? God bless you.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ross Perot's performance in the 1996 election surpassed the 5 percent of the vote his party needed to qualify for federal funds in 2000.
MR. CHOATE: In 1997, the Federal Election Commission certified the reform Party as a national political party. It made it eligible for $2 million plus to finance its convention in the year 2000 and provide our nominee $12.6 million for the general election run.
MR. WATTENBERG: In 1998, the Reform Party won a major victory. Pro-wrestler and actor turned Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.
MR. JESSE VENTURA: Now it's 1998 and the American dream lives on in Minnesota. Hopefully the Democrats and the Republicans will take notice now; they will - wait, wait - stop their partisan party politics and start doing what's right for the people.
MS. ROBIN KOLODNY: Ventura's win '98, in my opinion, really gave the Reform Party its first slice of legitimacy. Before, it had been seen as a start-up operation solely around Ross Perot.
MR. WATTENBERG: But Governor Ventura didn't remain a Reform Party poster boy for long. In February 2000, he left the fractious party when it appeared that the Reform nominee would be a man with whom Ventura had major disagreements on issues like abortion and trade.
MR. PAT BUCHANAN: Today, I am ending my lifelong membership in the Republican party and my campaign for its nomination, and I am declaring my intention to seek the nomination of the Reform Party for the presidency of the United States of America.
MR. VENTURA: I can't stay within a national party that could well have Pat Buchanan as its presidential nominee.
MR. WATTENBERG: The Reform Party was experiencing post-Perot political pains. Meanwhile, something else big was going on in third party politics: the Green Party nominated longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
MR. NADER: The two-party system of domination is about to end. Perot started it, and the Green Party's going to finish it.
MR. WATTENBERG: And thus begins the story of Campaign 2000 - from the third party perspective.
MR. CHOATE: What you have, in effect, is a demand for change coming form the left and from the right. That's a very powerful thing. It says that though a Nader and a Buchanan will disagree on many, many things, and they do, that both of them agree that democracy is threatened and the integrity of the political process is threatened.
MR. WATTENBERG: But do American voters agree?
MR. WHITE: I think it's very difficult in the year 2000 for third parties to find issues that are compelling enough to be successful with the American voter. The economy is the best it's ever been in our lifetimes. That makes the environment very difficult for third parties because there's not an environment of discontent there.
MR. WATTENBERG: There is discontent within the Reform Party. Buchanan's candidacy sparked a brawl for control of the party's future, its agenda, and its nomination.
MS. KOLODNY: When the Reform Party was formed, it was not formed by people who have the sort of conservative social values that Buchanan has. And that, I think, is going to become a major stumbling block.
MR. WATTENBERG: But there is still some important common ground within the Reform party and between the two minor party candidates. Many reformers agree with Buchanan on trade issues. Nader's Greens take a similar stand. Both candidates are hoping to tap anti-globalization sentiment. They oppose the free trade policies of both Governor Bush and Vice President Gore. How strong will this issue be? Come election day, we will find out.
MR. WHITE: As we get closer, as the leaves start falling from the trees and the snow begins to hit the ground, Americans always realize, very close to the election, that the choice is between the two major party candidates.
MR. WATTENBERG: An old story is replaying itself. When threatened, the major candidates maintain that the minor candidates can't win. They warn that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. A vote for Buchanan helps elect Gore. In order to fend off the wasted vote syndrome, Nader and Buchanan need to convince voters that there is little difference between Bush and Gore.
MR. NADER: You mean George W. Bush replacing George Ronald Clinton? You mean a do-nothing replacing a do-little? Or tweedle-dum tweedle-dee? Let's raise our expectations here.
MR. WATTENBERG: This year, both the Greens and the Reform Party are aiming for at least five percent of the popular vote. That would qualify them for federal funding in 2004 and put them on the road to becoming permanent parties of the Left and Right. But even with low numbers, Nader and Buchanan may have a significant impact on the outcome of Election 2000.
MR. WHITE: Close elections are won or lost at the margins. And therefore, a party that is getting 2, 3, 4, 5, percent of the vote or better is apt to make a difference, a difference in key states.
MR. CHOATE: America is ready for a third political party. They're ready for a third choice. Now I think it can be the Reform Party. I think it's going to be the Reform Party. But if it's not the reform party, something else will emerge in 2004.
MR. WATTENBERG: From the anti-Masons to the Republicans, from the Populists to the Progressives, to Nader's Raiders and the Buchanan Brigades. As time goes on, there will be others, providing an infusion of new ideas. Repeatedly, the major parties have adopted and shaped third-choice ideas for their own purposes. As they do, the two-party system is renewed and refreshed - changing American politics and American life.
Thanks for watching. I'm Ben Wattenberg.
Questions? Comments? Please email us at email@example.com
the PBS program on ideas
Support for A Third Choice is provided by Pfizer, Inc., the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.