08/01/2011 03:56 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2011

Would a Third Party Hurt or Help Obama in 2012?

Conventional wisdom holds that a third party candidacy is bad news for the incumbent. But does that logic hold for the unique circumstances of 2012? Is it possible that a third party candidacy from the Left could help, rather than hurt, Obama's re-election prospects?

As Al Smith said, "Let's look at the record." (Smith was governor of New York and the 1928 Democratic standard-bearer.)

  • Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives bolted from the Republican Party in 1912, sinking William Taft's re-election and putting Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House.
  • Alabama governor George Wallace led the Dixiecrats to win the electoral votes of 5 Southern states in 1968. The remaining states were closely divided, and Richard Nixon edged out Hubert Humphrey. Those states had gone reliably for Democrats from Reconstruction up to 1968. After that, they went reliably Republican.
  • Pollsters still dispute whether Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy took more votes from George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton. Whatever. Clinton defeated Bush's re-election bid and became President with less than 50% of the popular vote.
  • If you add Ralph Nader's vote to Al Gore's in 2000, the popular vote would still have been fairly close, but the Electoral College would have kept the Democrats in the White House. Hanging chads notwithstanding, even Florida would not have been in dispute.

So there you have it. Third party challenges, in less than a century, derailed two presidential re-election bids, and thwarted two sitting Vice Presidents from advancing to the White House.

Conventional wisdom doomed Harry Truman's re-election bid in 1948 by not one, but two third party challenges. But a deeper look at history suggests that those challenges might actually have helped Truman win.

Our two party system confronts all politicians, but presidential candidates most of all, with a difficult balancing act. Each party is a broad coalition of interests, that often have little in common. To win, a candidate must balance the fiery demands of the more extreme parts of the coalition against the desire of the middle for continuity and compromise. Ideological consistency and governing an unruly party, or nation, do not easily cohabit the mind or speech of any person.

Truman faced that dilemma in spades during the 80th Congress. As in the present 112th Congress, the far Right controlled the dialog and the agenda, even out of proportion to their actual number of seats. Truman had a very difficult time navigating through those treacherous legislative waters. None of Truman's domestic agenda passed. Very little of it was even introduced. Only national security legislation achieved consensus. One piece, the National Security Act of 1947, still chills the spines of libertarians.

The Marshall Plan remains one of America's best moments: a paragon of selflessness and enlightened world leadership. But it was sold to Congress as piece of vital national security business, a way to parry the Russkies on the cheap. And if Europe got up off its economic back, they'd buy more stuff from us: good for the balance of trade.

The third party candidacy of Henry Wallace gave Progressives a relief valve for their extreme frustration. Truman was not "one of them." He wouldn't even defend Progressive principles in the legislative battles of the 80th Congress. Never mind that the votes were hopelessly stacked against Progressives then. Truman favored the pragmatics of governing over rhetoric.

In February 1948, Truman directed the US military to end racial segregation "as quickly as possible." In July 1948, the Commander-in-Chief made that an order. That was too much for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and many "Dixiecrats" who bolted to the States Rights Democratic Party. They opposed integration of the armed forces and other civil rights positions on poll taxes, employment practices, and lynching that Truman supported (but did not try to advance in the 80th Congress).

Both third party candidates cleared the ground for Truman to run a campaign that focused sharply on convincing Independents and mainstream Democrats -- and even some mainstream Republicans -- that the 80th Congress had moved too far to the Right. Truman did not have to clutter his message with concessions to either the Progressives or the Dixiecrats. He was thus free to pound away on the things that bothered a majority Americans: jobs, housing, education, Social Security, and the like.

Truman knew that the most zealous Progressives and Dixiecrats would vote with the third party. But the more pragmatic among them would stay with the Democratic Party, if only out of fear of what the happen if Republicans won and the extremists continued to set the agenda.

History records that Truman's judgment was impeccable. He beat Dewey by 4.5%, despite losing 2.4% each to Progressive Henry Wallace and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. If those third parties had voted for the Democrat, Truman would have won by almost 10%, which history considers a near landslide. Even a 4.5% margin of victory is considered decisive.

There is more to the story. In 1948, Democrats stormed back to control both houses of Congress, reversing the stinging defeats of the 1946 mid-terms. The whole tone of Congress changed from "Repeal the New Deal" to Truman's Fair Deal smörgåsbord of Progressive legislation.

Wallace's candidacy let Truman focus on getting re-elected, and creating higher than expected turn out of Democratic constituencies at the polls. While Wallace went down to seemingly ignominious defeat, the next four years saw many of his principles enacted into law.

Why didn't the Thurmond candidacy have the same game-changing effect in 1948 that the Wallace candidacy had in 1968? One has to remember that in 1948, the Republican Party was still party of Lincoln and Reconstruction. Voting for that party was unthinkable to segregationists, and the more pragmatic among them stuck to the Democrats fearing what Republican hegemony would mean to their beliefs. The passage of epoch civil rights legislation under LBJ and Nixon's "Southern Strategy" finally cleaved the Dixiecrats from the Democrats and attached them to the GOP. Accordingly, the political calculus changed between 1948 and 1968.

While 2012 is not 1948, the analogy suggests that Obama might not want to fear a Progressive third party movement. It might actually help Obama get re-elected -- and help Progressives gain momentum in the next Congress.