Now that the field of candidates has narrowed...could it expand again?
The Democrats are down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Mitt Romney is gone. John McCain is the putative Republican candidate and is left battling Mike Huckabee, who would have to win just about every single primary left to gain enough delegates to win the nomination. But voters aren't necessarily ready to settle for these choices. Conservatives aren't happy with John McCain; the Democrats are so close in votes and delegates that some voters could still be swayed to vote for an independent. And most notable for the general election, a New York Times/CBS News poll last fall showed that 32% of voters nationwide describe themselves as independents. This means that almost one-third of the electorate, ineligible for their state primaries, have yet to cast a vote.
There are three plausible candidates who could run as independents:
Ron Paul Yes, Ron Paul is currently running on the Republican ticket. However, he has fewer delegates than Huckabee--if he won the rest of the primaries, he still wouldn't have enough to win the GOP nomination. But what has been Ron Paul's weakness in state primaries could be an asset in a national election. It's been well-documented that Paul has an extremely dedicated base of supporters who are organized and tech-savvy. They show up everywhere and have been able to raise funds at a rate that far outpaced some of his more famous rivals. But here's the problem: if he has, for example, twenty million supporters nationwide (again, this is just a hypothetical number), but only 6000 in a state that's holding a primary, he barely registers. However, if every one of his supporters can vote in a general election, then he can at least make an impact on the race.
Paul has generally said that he won't run as an independent or third party candidate, but in a December appearance on Meet the Press he left the door open a fraction. He has the money to run and the campaign infrastructure to do the work to get him on ballots across the nation, so it's certainly a possibility.
Mike Bloomberg The two-term New York City mayor keeps saying he's not planning on entering the race, but that doesn't mean the rumblings about his potential candidacy have quieted. A number of "Bloomberg for President" websites (draftbloomberg, uniteformike, Mike Bloomberg 2008) persist. Bloomberg appeals to Republicans who are more focused on fiscal conservatism than social conservatism, and to independents who are more pragmatic than ideological. A New York Daily News article on February 3rd gave the reasons why a Bloomberg run is less likely than ever, the most important being the rise of John McCain. But there's a long nine months before the election and a lot can happen; if McCain falters or anything else occurs to make the race more fluid, Bloomberg has the money and connections to jump in and put together a campaign quickly.
Ralph Nader In a January 31st interview with Democracy Now, Nader said that he had set up an exploratory committee and website to figure out whether he could put together enough volunteers in each state to run a campaign. Nader ran as an independent in 2004, but stated that if he decided to enter the race now, it would most likely be as the Green Party candidate (which is how he ran in 1996 and 2000). Nader, of course, appeals to the portions of the left who don't think the current candidates speak for them--environmentalists and populists, for examples.
A third party or independent candidate would have a noticeable effect on the race. On January 29th, the Rasmussen Reports released the results of a poll that showed 26% of American voters believed it likely that Bloomberg would enter the presidential race and 29% thought Ron Paul would eventually run as an independent. Of the voters surveyed, 15% said that they would vote for one of these candidates.
According to the survey, a Republican candidate would suffer the most from these independent entries. In a proposed McCain-Obama matchup, Obama led McCain by five points. When Bloomberg and Paul are added as options, Obama's lead increases to seven points, with Paul taking 11% of the vote and Bloomberg taking 5%. The poll was done with Romney still in the race and matched him with Clinton; in that case, the addition of Bloomberg and Paul increased Clinton's lead by 14 points. In all matchups, the inclusion of the two third-party candidates attracted 13% to 17% from the Republicans, but only 5% to 10% from the Democrats. Nader, who wasn't included in the poll, would most likely take votes from Democrats and independents.
So while it may seem as though the choices for president are locked in, there is still a chance that a wild card could enter and disrupt the race. And with many months left to go in this long campaign, there's plenty of time remaining for wildness.