Other than the massive infrastructures that have been created by the two major parties, America is slowly losing its grip on a divided two party ideology, with massive fractures and fissures creating a thousand little cracks in both parties. The distinctions between red and blue, between liberal and conservative are no longer clear.
This was evident even in the last Presidential election, when candidate Obama sided with Bush on pushing the TARP bill through while McCain stood aside silently and let his party divide in half. Which was the conservative side and which was the liberal side? Unclear. What is Democrat and what is Republican now when it comes to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran? Unclear. Even on issues such as pro-choice and same sex marriage, many Democrats and Republicans find themselves divided not on party lines but on constituent lines. We also have entrenched leaders of both parties that are not as forthcoming in terms of letting everyone in under the fold. Republicans had more tolerance at one point (tolerating candidates who were unclear on issues like pro-choice (Reagan and Bush I) as did Democrats (allowing the conservative wing of the party, led by Bill Clinton, take over.
However, unlike prior years with a third party, we won't see just one third party. There are too many ideologies, and too much money sloshing around each radically different philosophy. But the nature of campaigning will be moved from the television sets and the streets to the Internet and debate forums and the groups with the largest momentum (based on charisma, name recognition, and ideology) will be able to compete with the two large parties and have a voice in the national arena. Here's who can be third party leaders and why.
Mitt Romney -- right now he's a Republican. No question. But the Republicans have rejected him. The former governor of a formerly blue state, Romney has had to toe the line of both classic conservatism (particularly on economic issues) and social liberalism to keep his local constituents happy. While he's tried to flip flop on a few issues, right wing Republicans have a long memory and won't tolerate a Mormon, that was maybe once pro choice, and maybe once in favor of same sex marriage. However, and this is key, it's clear he could've provided a strong boost to the McCain campaign if he had been the VP candidate during the economic crisis. Of all 4 of the national candidates, Romney was head over heels above them in terms of experience and knowledge on the economic issues. He's got the money and the motive to push ahead and form an economics-based party with many of the more independent Blue Dog Democrats joined with his base of Republican support.
Sarah Palin - again, she's a Republican. But the Republican establishment blames her for the loss of the election despite the fact that McCain ran a haphazard campaign throughout , lacked the fundraising apparatus of Obama, and failed to take a leadership role during the economic crisis (allowing Obama to practically declare himself President at the critical moment). But Palin has a stridently loyal fan base rivaling Obama's loyal crew and could make herself a force in 2012 with or without party support. Look for her to start mobilizing on the Internet from her new platform on Fox News. It's also worth noting that despite all the scandals, she's survived and is now ready to look forward.
Mike Bloomberg has it all when it comes to potentially forming his own independent coalition. A 3-term mayor of NYC, he's the 8th richest man in the country with a net worth topping $16bb. If a Presidential election costs $1bb he can afford that without lifting a finger catering to donors. He was a Democrat, then a Republican, then an Independent, and he's been supported by prominent Democrats and Republicans. While he's never stated that he wants to run for President (in fact, in 2008, he repeatedly stated that he was not an independent candidate even when various independents were pushing for him to get on state ballots, particularly the Virginia ballot) he has met (according to the Associated Press) with a ballot expert in early 2008 to explore his possibilities. You probably can't find a stronger economic ticket than Romney / Bloomberg.
With Romney and Bloomberg, it's not that they are so independent that neither party likes them so they need a platform to do their thing on. It's that they have support from both parties. Even Palin can make that argument as there will always be a core basis of women who will be interested in her candidacy regardless of what party she is from.
Ralph Nader is a different story. While he will certainly run again, I view him as too far left to bring about a big enough constituency to excite middle America.
And Ron Paul is this year's Ross Perot. A crotchety guy, maybe a little crazy, with a fanatical following, but ultimately a little too out there to be taken seriously by the larger public. His following tends to be a "third party " of lunatic conspiracy theorists who tend to flame any blog post that is remotely critical of their man. I also thought Paul's appearance in "Bruno" was more than a little amusing. I'm going to throw Dennis Kucinich in with Ron Paul as being too extreme in the Democratic party to make any claim on the middle of America that is needed in order to have a substantial voice in 2012. Not to mention, his own dalliances in the entertainment industry (UFO sightings with Shirley Maclaine) make him a little too out there for most people.
Hilary Clinton is an interesting choice. She and Bill controlled the Democratic party for almost two decades so its hard to imagine her bolting the party. But if there is enough dissatisfaction with Obama she might come across as the only viable alternative even though Obama has got the party locked up in terms of pushing his own nomination in 2012. The only place she might be able to take her 18mm voters (the number of voters who voted for her in the Democratic primaries in 2008) would be to a third party. And despite her laying low right now as a loyal Secretary of State, she desperately believes she is the best person for the job and wants her chance to shine. Perhaps the Blue Dog Democrats would bolt to form their own party and make Hilary their leader. Bill Clinton in the early 90s was head of the Democratic Leadership Council, which the Blue Dog Democrats currently resemble.
Two long shots, one from each party, but more for 2016 than 2012:
Scott Brown obviously has to make the list. A shot out of the dark in blue state Massachusetts. Clearly he's going to have to walk the middle path to keep the faith with his constituents plus the Republicans at the same time. If he builds a broad coalition and can spark interest in his ideas via the Internet then he can have a voice in 2012. Not necessarily as a Presidential candidate but as a VP candidate or a kingmaker. This might be more 2016 than 2012 and he's got to stop dragging his kids through the mud. He needs to learn how to have the gravitas that is needed for a national candidate.
Harold Ford's got a tough road ahead of him. He's got to take down incumbent Senator Kristen Gillibrand in a senate race in a state he's not from, with the other senator from that state, Chuck Schumer, against him, and Barack Obama against him. But he's got an independent streak, as evidenced by his unsuccessful attempt to become minority leader of the House of Representatives against Nancy Pelosi. If he can win this current battle, his name will be instantly catapulted to strong independent status for 2012, or perhaps 2016. He's also been balanced on economic issues and his native Southern roots bring him closer to the heart of America on the issues.
Finally, Lou Dobbss name keeps getting put out there. And Glenn Beck is worth an honorable mention. Both have strong core constituencies among their viewers and Glenn Beck in particular is gold right now whenever he publishes a book. Clearly they have a brand an an audience and depending on how they reign in their more extreme opinions, can both be a force in 2012 -- or at least keep the discussion going.
Nobody is happy right now with their party. Obama has disappointed many in his core following, and the Republicans are floundering without leadership. Again, distinctions are getting very hazy as to what exactly is a Democrat and what is a Republican. Perhaps America can finally achieve the dream of democracy -- the idea that voters can really have a choice in their leader.