The Perot Simulator
In order to give an idea of what can happen when a presidential election features a very strong run by a third party candidacy, we took the liberty of tweaking the results of the 1992 election, where Texas billionaire Ross Perot literally gave Bill Clinton and George Bush a run for their money.
We decided to see what would have happened if Perot had run a more a more sustained long-term campaign than he did (if you’ll remember, he pulled back from active campaigning in the summer, then re-charged his efforts in September). The results of this particular hypothetical are quite revealing. Perot would have won the presidency in 1992 if he increased his vote percentage from 18.91% (the real result) to 34.79%, less than twice what he actually managed, winning a landslide of 320 electoral votes. He could have achieved this by drawing equally from Bush and Clinton in all states, but, and this is important, without winning the popular vote. In this scenario, Clinton would still have been the winner of the popular vote at 35.07%. As we actually did in 2000, we would have had a president elected without winning the popular vote. See the Excel spreadsheet with the data.
Despite exit polls that showed that Perot drew essentially equally from his rivals, many people feel that Perot siphoned more support from Bush than from Clinton. Humoring this position, we also took a look at what would have happened if Perot drew 60% of his votes from would-be Bush voters, and 40% from Clinton. With those numbers, the Electoral College result would have been dramatically different. Perot would have won only 248 electoral votes, no one would have won a majority in the Electoral College, and the election would have been decided in Congress. Here's the spreadsheet on this scenario.
Just a slightly smaller percentage increase for Perot (34.04% as opposed to the 35.07% of the first example, drawing equally from Bush and Clinton) would also have dramatically altered the Electoral College result. Perot would have won only 241 electoral votes, also with no electoral vote majority and a House-decided presidency. See those numbers here.
What does it all mean? A few things. First, it shows us that a strong third party candidate can, in fact, win an election. It is not implausible to speculate that someone like Michael Bloomberg could turn in a very strong showing in the 35% range in a three-way race. In our 1992 hypothetical, that was all Perot would have needed.
Our fictional-yet-feasible election scenario also debunks the myth that the Electoral College is the biggest obstacle in the way of a third party candidate winning the presidency. There are, indeed, many forces working against an independent run for the White House, but as our example shows, the Electoral College is not necessarily one of them.
Finally, we can see how our current system is so vulnerable to electing popular vote losers, especially in a situation where states can be won by a small plurality of just over 33% in a three-way race. The solutions? States are already signing onto the National Popular Vote plan to neutralize the Electoral College. Other states are seriously debating instant runoff voting, a voting method proving popular in cities, that protects majority rule while accommodating voter choice.