Q&A on non-traditional candidates running for office

UMass Dartmouth Political Science Professor Doug Roscoe discusses the advantages and disadvantages of non-traditional candidates, the impact they can have, and if we will see more outsider candidates gain traction in American politics.

This week American businessman and television personality Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump joins an already crowded field of candidates in the 2016 election. However, his non-traditional background sets him apart from most individuals who have declared their candidacy. UMass Dartmouth Political Science Professor Doug Roscoe discusses the advantages and disadvantages of non-traditional candidates, the impact they can have, and if we will see more outsider candidates gain traction in American politics. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the non-traditional running for office? 

DR: Outsider candidates don't have a record of votes or positions so they have more flexibility to define what they stand for.  They also have a legitimate claim to run for government by running against government--always a popular approach, since government isn't particularly popular.  On the other hand, it's still the case that winning a political office--particularly the presidency--requires a serious political organization.  Outsiders lack this organization.  And they lack the connections within the political establishment to put one together easily. 

What impact can they have on a race if any? 

DR: These kinds of candidates have tended to be spoilers.  Usually, they run on the extremes of the ideological spectrum, so they end up peeling votes away from the candidates closest to them and advantaging the candidates on the other end of the spectrum.  Ralph Nader in 2000, for example, took votes away from Al Gore and this was of great benefit to George W. Bush.  In fact, Nader's total number of votes in Florida was greater than the margin Bush won by.  So, you can make a case that Nader handed Bush the victory in 2000. 

But even if they don't spoil the race for anyone, their extremity has the effect of pulling the mainstream candidates out toward the ideological edges.  The establishment candidates fear losing votes to the outsiders, so they have to position themselves further to the left or right than they might like.  This can contribute to the polarization of American politics. 

Who comes to mind for you as some of the most notable non-traditional candidates to run for office in the U.S.? 

DR: One of the big exceptions to these dynamics was Ross Perot, whose folksy populism appealed to many voters in the middle, particularly those without strong ideological proclivities.  Perot was able to establish a strong grass roots organization in 1992 called United We Stand America.  This eventually morphed into a bona fide, though short-lived, political party in 1996, the Reform Party.  His centrism and political organization helped him garner 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992.   

Of course, the state winner-take-all mathematics of the Electoral College meant the 19 percent popular vote equated to zero electoral votes, because he failed to win a plurality of the vote in any state.  And this is an important point: outsider candidates really have to capture a major party nomination if they wish to have any reasonable chance of winning. 

I think Donald Trump doesn't care much about having a reasonable chance of winning anyways.  His history of self-promotion, and the extremity and brashness of his positions, suggest this is simply about shaping the Trump brand. 

Looking ahead do you think we will see more outsider candidates in American politics? 

DR: Social media probably makes it easier for an outsider candidate to get some traction.  On the other hand, these kinds of candidates are almost always famous from another realm anyways, so attracting media attention has never been a barrier.  I wouldn't be surprised to see more candidates emerging from Hollywood.  There are a lot of highly political people in the entertainment industry, and acting is the perfect background for a career in national politics.  But organization still matters.  A successful candidate has to put together a decentralized campaign apparatus across the country, and I don't think it's getting any easier to do that. 

About Doug Roscoe 

Professor Roscoe's academic interests center upon Congress, the president, interest groups, and political parties. He is especially interested in the dynamics of the electoral process, and how interest groups and parties shape lawmaking and public policy through electoral politics. His research has been published in the Journal of Politics, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Social Science Quarterly, the American Review of Politics, and the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  In 2011 Professor Roscoe was a Fulbright scholar at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, China. 

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