WASHINGTON — If elections were crossword puzzles, we could put the question this way: What has four letters and can't cope with Patrick J. Buchanan, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton?
The trick is there are two answers: B-u-s-h, in 1992, and this year, maybe D-o-l-e. The four-letter word for what this analogy--as well as the talk among Dole strategists of giving up on California--could mean in November is also easy: l-o-s-e. Moreover, if two third-party candidates turn out to be Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, even President Bill Clinton will have to keep looking over his shoulder, because much of their support will be coming out of his coalition, too. It's possible this could be the year when America goes from a two-party system to a two-and-half-party system.
For the Republicans, though, one such election could be coincidence, twice in a row could be big trouble. Between 1984 and 1992, the GOP share of the total vote for president dropped from 59%, for Ronald Reagan, to 37.5%, for George Bush, lowest since Alfred M. Landon in 1936. If the election of 1996 mirrors that race, it could have chaotic ramifications.
The possibilities that GOP leaders won't discuss are these: that the GOP presidential coalition that controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1968 and 1992 started collapsing four years ago; that Congress went Republication in 1994 only because Clinton was so unpopular, and because the Democratic congressional coalition, basically in power since 1932, was worn out. Now the old GOP presidential coalition is coughing up blood, three or four presidential candidates are almost guaranteed for November and there's even a 10% chance there could be five significant contenders--a great historic first, as Richard M. Nixon used to say.
Republicans are calling Buchanan and Perot "spoilers," while Clinton strategists say the same of Nader. Perot and Nader even have roughly the same answer: You can't be a spoiler running against the Republicans and Democrats; they've proved, by corruption or mismanagement, that they're the spoilers. As for the question, "What do you want, Ross or Pat or Ralph? The answer is simple: "Just what the 60% of Americans who tell pollsters they'd like a third party want: parties that listen to voters instead of to big contributors and special interests."
True, it's not that simple. As Jay Leno joked recently, "Why are we talking about a third party when we can't get rid of the two we already have?" On the other hand, the fact that Perot is launching one new party, Nader has just won the California presidential nomination of another and Buchanan has been asked to accept the nomination of a third, shows the public is figuring something out: When you want to get rid of A and don't want to go back to B, it helps to have C, D and E available.
Four years ago, when Bush spent spring being kicked in the shins by Buchanan in the GOP primaries and being hamstrung by the unannounced independent, Perot, he wound up getting the lowest November vote share of any incumbent since 1912. That 37.5% in the record books is almost never talked about--probably because most observers think it was (a) a fluke, (b) the personal failure of Bush or (c) both of the above. Suppose, however, it was actually (d) the unraveling of the two-party system? House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said right after the 1994 congressional elections that if the GOP failed, there would be a new third party. Maybe that was a better prediction than those he made a few weeks later, about a Republican revolution stretching two decades into the 21st century.
There's another little statistic left over from 1992 that observers also decided wasn't relevant: how 29% of self-identified GOP voters told exit pollsters that they had voted for Clinton or Perot--confirming the largest rank-and-file Republican disaffection since Gallup invented polling in the 1930s.
Now that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is repeating the Bush three-step of 1992--being trod on by Buchanan, cut in on by Perot and maybe back-flipped by Clinton--it's fair to ask how he's doing with the rest of Bush's 1992 dance program. Is he now watching the GOP presidential coalition run off with somebody else?
Indeed, the same farewell scenes could be in the script. Recent polls show 15%-18% of self-identified Republicans now plan to vote for Clinton against Dole. In a three-way race, 15%-17% say they'll back Perot. And some 15%-20% of Republicans call themselves Buchanan supporters. In California, 2% of Republicans even chose Nader in a four-way race.
Under these circumstances, it's easy to imagine a four-way race in which 15% of Republicans back Clinton, 17% vote for Perot and 2% support Nader. That would be 34% of Republicans bolting the ticket, worse than in 1992. Should "Pitchfork Pat" Buchanan decide that he, too, has had it with the Grand Old Plutocracy, it's conceivable that up to 40% of Republicans could splinter off.