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Are Third-Party Presidential Bids a Pipe Dream?

Third-party candidates face dizzyingly steep odds of ever claiming the presidency, which accounts in part for all the criticism that was unleashed on Thomas Friedman’s Sunday column that half-pined for and half-predicted that a serious outside challenger would emerge in 2012. But FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, known for his facility with numbers, provides a long list of reasons for why the odds might not be as long as they seem:

1. Voters have extremely low opinions of both major parties — much lower than in the period from 1992-1994, when electoral constituencies were being re-shuffled and when Mr. Perot lost his bid.

2. By some measures, an increasing number of voters prefer to identify as belonging to neither major party.

3. The Republicans might field a particularly polarizing presidential nominee. Sarah Palin, in particular, were she to be nominated, might have trouble achieving 50 percent of the vote, even if Barack Obama were still fairly unpopular.

4. The employment picture is likely to improve only modestly by 2012, according to most economists, which could contribute toward continued dissatisfaction with Washington.

5. Whichever party wins control of the Senate and the House in November, its majorities are liable to be narrow, which is likely to lead to gridlock and the inability to make good on its campaign promises.

Silver actually goes on to provide fifteen reasons in all, and while it’s hard to gauge their “statistical significance,” they’re a fairly compelling compilation. Odds are, even in such a relatively favorable environment, a third-party candidate would stand little chance of making significant inroads, but the broader point is that Friedman’s critics might not want to deny the possibility outright.

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