How should we think about whether a particular potential third-party candidate is likely to do well?

The conditions for any third party or independent candidate to do well have little to do with the candidate, and a whole lot to do with one factor: whether the president is popular. Almost all of the strong 20th century showings by third-party candidates went along with dismal approval ratings for the incumbent president. But that’s a (sort of) necessary, not a sufficient, condition. After all, lots of people have attempted third-party runs when the president was unpopular, only to wind up as statistical noise.

So how can we tell who is likely to do well if the conditions are right?

The conventional wisdom on this seems to treat it as a question of issues. Thus Thomas Friedman, pushing David Walker, has one set of centrist issues he believes are available to a third-party candidate; National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar disagrees and pushes former House member Virgil Goode on the basis that Goode is pushing a different set of issues.

But I think that’s probably wrong. If we look at Ross Perot, John Anderson, George Wallace, and (going back a ways) Teddy Roosevelt, what history suggests is that success isn’t about issues — it’s about resources. Perot was both wildly rich and had a long history of public action, both of which helped influence the media to take him seriously. Anderson was a presidential candidate in 1980. Wallace was a high-profile governor and had the very best resource of all: a constituency. A real one, not one cobbled together by issues that a columnist or a consultant thinks might get people interested. And, of course, you know all about former president Roosevelt.

Add it all up, and these contenders had one or more of the following: fame, money, political qualifications and a built-in constituency. Near as I can tell, every third-party presidential candidate who took 5 percent or more of the vote was reasonably well known before the campaign (Anderson became well known in losing the nomination). That’s not to say that Walker or Goode couldn’t possibly “succeed” in some way, but neither of them really fits the profile of past successful third-party candidates. The truth is that the way it really works most of the time is someone with a big ego and the resources to make it happen decides to run and probably then fills in whichever issues seem to resonate. Starting with the issues is pretty much getting the whole thing backward. If you want to push some set of issues, try to get a major party candidate to adopt them. It’s a lot easier.