NBC’s Chuck Todd now predicts, according to Matt Lewis over at the Daily Caller, that if Rick Perry does win the nomination that a third-party presidential candidate will emerge. As near as I can tell, Todd isn’t welcoming or advocating for such a thing, just predicting it’s likely to happen. It’s not a bad call — but I’d say the same thing applies if Mitt Romney is nominated.

Third party campaigns don’t emerge from carefully (or not so carefully) reasoned op-ed pieces from go-gooders. They require a demand for it, which is furnished by unpopular presidents, and a supply, which takes someone crazy enough to do it who meets conventional standards of, let us say, seriousness. The demand side is systematic; the supply side appears to be fairly random. After all, there are probably only a few hundred potential “serious” third party candidates — leading politicians, mainly, but Ross Perot proved that the right kind of rich person can do it — and there’s no way of knowing which if any will take the plunge, even if the conditions are perfect. Because, after all, this third-party candidate isn’t going to win, so why should she do it?

Where we are right now is that the demand side appears to be fulfilled (with Barack Obama at 39 percent approval today), although of course it’s not hard to imagine him winding up reasonably popular in six (or twelve) months.

What I disagree with Todd about is the importance of the challenger. Apparently he compared this election with 1992, and that’s exactly right: it appeared that Democrats had a weak field, and then an unproven nominee…until it “suddenly” no longer mattered what the field looked like apart from the nominee, and that the nominee “suddenly” gained stature and charisma and presidentialness.

So, yes, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if over the winter it appears that the Republicans are weak and squabbling and not ready to govern, and that someone sees him self as a white knight and swoops into the race as an independent. And then the nominee, whether Perry or Romney, will (if the economy stays terrible or if Obama is otherwise doing poorly) suddenly find his charisma growing, and the party that was hopelessly divided will line up solidly behind him, and all that ideological rhetoric will be replaced by a move to the center. Or, perhaps, we’ll go through this cycle knightless, as has sometimes happened in the past. Remember, the supply side of it is basically random. Either way, though, I doubt if it will make much of a difference whether Perry or Romney is nominated.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.