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POLITICS : Perot's Success Spells Trouble for State Politicos

October 29, 1995|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Suppose they gave an election and eight political parties came. That's likely to happen in California--if both Ross Perot's Reform Party and the lesser-known Natural Law Party, formed by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, are certified for the 1996 ballot. California politics could be forever changed.

Over the years, third parties have sometimes played the role of "spoiler" in state elections. In 1990, Democratic incumbent Doug Bosco lost his congressional seat to a conservative Republican, Frank Riggs, by 1% of the vote, while the candidate of the liberal Peace and Freedom Party drew nearly 15% of voters who otherwise would have supported the Democrat. That same year, in a hard-fought legislative race in strongly Republican San Diego County, Democratic challenger Dede Alpert upset GOP Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier by 46%-41%. The candidate of the conservative-leaning Libertarian Party collected nearly 11% of the votes, which would have otherwise gone to the Republican.

Some contend that if it had not been for the debut of the environmentalist Green Party on the 1994 ballot, Democrat Tony Miller would have defeated Republican Bill Jones in the race for California secretary of state. Each candidate received 45% of the vote; four perennial minor parties collectively pulled 6% and the Greens garnered 4%--mostly from liberals who would probably have voted for Democrat Miller had they not had the new option. Republican Jones' victory margin was about 44,000 votes; the Green total was nearly 290,000.

But third parties seldom have the money, organization, emotion or star power necessary to sustain their impact beyond an election or two. In general, a minor party rises, makes a splash and is absorbed or, as in California, is allowed to languish on the ballot as long as it maintains a minuscule registration and continues to attract a small percentage of the vote. The Peace and Freedom Party, for example, was born out of liberal anger over the Vietnam War. After the war ended, its membership declined. It remains on the ballot with a 1994 registration equal to only 0.35% of the electorate.

Those who marvel at the speed with which the Perot operation accumulated party registrations--an estimated 100,000 or so in about 18 days--should recall that the Peace and Freedom Party accomplished a similar feat. Only a week before its deadline, according to ballot-access expert Richard Winger, state officials dismissed the party's chances of making the 1968 California ballot. But its organizers collected some 50,000 registrations in the final four days to qualify.

There's no guarantee that the Reform Party will not repeat the history of California's other third parties. But no other third party has its potential to shake up this state's electoral process.

California's political climate is as volatile and angry as it has ever been. Polls show that voters are increasingly cynical about government and politics-as-usual. A Los Angeles Times poll, taken in early September, indicated that 64% of California's voters believe the state is on the wrong track. The poll also showed that a majority (55%) are potential third-party voters in the presidential contest.

A Field poll, also taken in September, indicated that 63% of the state's electorate could be considered potential third-party voters; 56% said it would be a good idea if a national third party were formed to run candidates for federal and state offices. In addition, this survey found that voter fascination with such a party appears to be driven by dissatisfaction with both Republicans and Democrats. Some 13% of those polled said the major parties were doing a good job in "responding to the needs and desires of the American public"; 41% said they were doing a poor or very poor job. That's powerful fuel to propel a third party--especially if it's well-organized and well-funded.

The defection of disgruntled Republicans and independent voters to Perot helped Bill Clinton win California in 1992. These same defectors are most likely to be lured to the Reform Party in 1996. Aside from their potential impact on the presidential race, this is how they might affect down-the-ballot races.: In the wake of the 1991 competitive redistricting, a viable third party--unleashed just as term limits kick in--could reshape the state's political terrain.

The editors of the "California Target Book" have identified 60 Assembly and Senate districts that will either be open because of term limits or retirements, or where incumbents could be seriously challenged. The total includes 25 Assembly members and 10 state senators who have reached their term limits. In addition, 18 congressional seats--nine Republican and nine Democratic--of the 52-member delegation could be major contests, either in the primary or general election.

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