WASHINGTON — Tea party conservatives don't trust Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate for president. Progressives feel betrayed by President Barack Obama. And after a politically bruising debt compromise, many voters feel frustrated with both Democrats and Republicans as the 2012 election season draws near.
Third party, anyone? Could next year bring another Ross Perot?
While speculation has intensified that next year's presidential contest could see serious challenges from outside the two major national parties, political experts are doubtful.
"The cautionary tale for any third-party candidate," said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, "is to remember that the last time a third-party candidate even finished second in a presidential race was 1912."
Since former President Theodore Roosevelt took second that year as a Progressive Party candidate, significant obstacles have largely shoved third-party candidates to the margins of elections. Simply put, Democrats and Republicans have an easier time raising money, getting listed on state ballots and winning enough states for shots at Electoral College majorities.
Political scientists they say those obstacles probably will prevent today's widespread voter disillusionment from translating into a credible electoral challenge.
"It's almost insurmountable," said Dr. Holly Brasher, a professor of government at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Until one of these left or right or center organizations has some continuity from year to year, I don't ever see it happening."
The obstacles, however, haven't stopped talk of a third-party challenge from the left, the right or even the center.
During and after this week's debt-ceiling compromise — which 95 Democrats voted against in the House of Representatives — many liberals blasted Democratic concessions to the Republican Party, particularly the abandonment of revenue increases in favor of spending cuts only.
One senator, independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont, announced during a radio appearance July 22 that he'd support a progressive challenger to the president in Democratic primaries. Consumer activist Ralph Nader agreed, saying in an interview July 27 with the congressional newspaper The Hill that he's working to recruit liberal Democratic challengers to Obama. (Nader and Sanders have said they don't plan to run.)
In an interview with McClatchy, Nader said the president's debt-reduction compromises were only the latest in a series of disappointments for progressives, including what they see as the president's hawkish military policy and the exclusion of a public option in his health care overhaul.
"It's hard to exaggerate the extent to which this man caves," Nader said.
Nader, who's run for president five times, said he'd support Democratic challengers in the primaries and a third-party challenge from the left in the general election.
On the right, the debt-limit debate laid bare growing frustration between tea party conservatives, many of whom opposed raising the debt ceiling at all, and more moderate Republicans, who were more open to compromise with Democrats.
Many conservatives also remain skeptical about former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who led the GOP field with support from 22 percent of likely Republican primary voters in a Rasmussen Reports poll released Monday. Among voters who consider themselves part of the tea party movement, Romney placed third, behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.
When asked about Romney last week in Washington, Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the umbrella group Tea Party Patriots, said the candidate's record on health care and several other issues was a concern to many in his organization.
"I think he's in real trouble with the tea party base," Meckler said.
If Romney or any other candidate won the Republican nomination without much tea party support, a more conservative candidate could launch a third-party bid, some say.
Some still see room for a moderate third-party candidate, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to run from the center.
Among them is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who on July 23 profiled a well-funded initiative to put a nonpartisan ticket on the ballot in every state. The group behind the initiative, Americans Elect, has been collecting the signatures necessary to make state ballots, but it would have voters using a free online voting system select the nominees.
Americans Elect organizers say their goal is to revolutionize the election process, not to pick a particular candidate or ideological type. Many of its organizers have centrist or bipartisan political experience.
The group has collected more than 1.6 million signatures in California alone, said its California press director, Ileana Wachtel. Of every four people who've listened to street volunteers describe the initiative, three have signed their names in support of a ballot line for the group, she said.
"The success really underscores the frustration with the status quo and a hunger for some type of examination of our political process," Wachtel said.
Frustration obviously runs deep with American voters. The economic crisis in particular has shaken their confidence, said Dr. Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
"The tolerance for the status quo has gone down," Taylor said.
Still, like the other analysts, Taylor said he doubted that disillusionment would translate into a strong third-party candidacy.
Even among voters who like neither the Democratic nor the Republican candidate, most will have a preference between the two and feel reluctant to vote for a third-party candidate who could play spoiler, he said.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen, the founder and president of Rasmussen Reports, said that if the general election appeared to be close, he doubted that a strong third-party candidate would emerge.
Rasmussen added, however, that voters are "discouraged and angry" with both major political parties. The last three elections largely rejected the party in power, he noted, as Democrats won back both houses of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, and Republicans won back the House and gained ground in the Senate last year.
Rasmussen said he could easily imagine a strong third-party alternative emerging by the 2016 election.
"The gap between the American people and their leaders," he said, "is bigger than the gap between the Republicans and Democrats." Run
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