A year from today, the makeup of the 1996 presidential race will be set -- or will it?
The front-loading of the primary schedule makes it all but certain that the identity of the Democratic nominee, presumably President Clinton, and his Republican opponent will be known. But there is increasing speculation that a third candidate, or even a third party, may emerge to complicate the picture.
It is not just idle talk. In a Times Mirror poll released last week, 57 percent of those interviewed said there should be a third party to compete with the Democrats and Republicans. Obviously, that does not imply any commitment to support such a party. But it signals a declaration of independence from more than half the electorate.
As significant as the number is the fact that support for the third-party idea is four points higher now than it was last July, when public disenchantment with the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Clinton was becoming evident. Voters dumped the Democrats last November, but the new Republican majorities on Capitol Hill have not quenched the thirst for change, for breaking away from the two-party system.
A second survey, the Battleground Poll conducted by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake and also delivered last week, reported that "voters' continued frustration and cynicism is evident in the substantial proportion that trust neither party." They measured that fed-up-with-both faction at 23 percent of the electorate, and offered this comment:
"The notion that the angry voter, who played such a pivotal role in the last two elections, would be appeased by tossing out a president and the controlling party of Congress has simply not happened. There is still a significant portion of the electorate who continue to be vehemently frustrated with Washington."
These figures have been noted in the Dallas headquarters of Ross Perot's grass-roots organization, United We Stand America, where they come as no surprise. The loyalist remnants of the extraordinary grass-roots organization the Dallas billionaire put together in 1992 have been meeting and talking third-party possibilities at the local level for some months. In late summer, leaders of the state United We Stand organizations will meet in Dallas with Perot to review their options.
As he did in 1992, Perot is giving the impression that he is being swept along by a tide of public opinion he did not create, in effect, being drafted to run for president. He certainly has made no public commitment to run again. Nor has he closed the door. His aides express sensible cautions about the difficulty of recruiting enough responsible candidates in 435 House districts and 33 Senate races to make a third party seem plausible. But it would be no problem to get Perot himself on the ballot in all 50 states, as an independent candidate for president. He did it in 1992, and he is more experienced now.
The loyalties he built in 1992 appear to be enduring. Goeas and Lake said that in their poll, 16 percent of the respondents recalled voting for Perot last time. That is only 3 percent less than his actual share of the vote -- a remarkable figure, they said, because people are inclined to deny or fail to remember voting for a loser.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal Poll last week used the name of retired Gen. Colin Powell, instead of Perot, as the independent candidate. A trial heat in that survey gave Clinton 34 percent, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) 32 percent and Powell 23 percent -- yet another indication of the significant base of support for someone running outside the two parties.
The distinguishing characteristic of these potential independent voters -- aside from their disillusionment with Washington politicians of both parties -- is their libertarian streak. They are skeptical of the Democrats because they identify them with big government. They are wary of the Republicans because of the growing influence within the GOP of the religious right.
The independents tend to be more secular than religious, more libertarian than liberal. If the Republican nominating process pulls the GOP nominee to the right and Clinton faces a primary challenger who forces him to move left, it takes absolutely no imagination to foresee that a year from now, the door may be wide open to a third candidate who makes the case for a government that would limit its regulation of the economy and of personal behavior.