By JONATHAN D. SALANT
WASHINGTON – A badly divided Reform Party finished the presidential campaign with its top issues taken by other candidates and presidential nominee Pat Buchanan unable to attract much support or attention.
The topics that initially defined the party – balancing the budget, overhauling campaign finance laws, opposition to free trade – were picked up by others in the presidential race. The party’s founder and two-time presidential nominee, Ross Perot, sat on the sidelines.
Polls leading up to Election Day gave Buchanan 1 percent or less of the vote, well below the 5 percent threshold required for the Reform Party’s 2004 nominee to receive federal funds.
Still, Buchanan promised to remain in the party and continue to speak out on such issues as opposing abortion, restricting immigration and opposing free trade agreements.
“I am with these causes now and up until the time the Lord himself calls me home,” Buchanan told a cheering crowd of around 100 people at a nearby hotel. “This cause is not going to die. This cause is going to move forward.”
Interviews with voters indicated that Buchanan supporters were mostly white, married, Christian and making less than $50,000 a year. Still, an overwhelming majority of anti-abortion voters and self-described members of the religious right cast their votes for George W. Bush, as did more than half of those who voted for Perot in 1996. The exit polls were conducted by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and the television networks.
“The Reform Party is now traveling a well-trod path in American politics, down the road to oblivion,” said John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.
“What third parties need to survive and thrive are two things. They need a charismatic candidate and they need a set of compelling issues,” he said.
Today, the Reform Party has neither, White said.
Perot endorsed Bush for president. The budget is balanced. Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader campaigned against free trade and for overhauling the campaign finance laws, two of Perot’s signature issues.
Without Perot, the party split over Buchanan, an anti-abortion conservative who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000.
Still, Reform Party chairman Gerry Moan said Buchanan brought in new people to the party.
“I think our demographics have gotten younger, bolder, more conservative, and we’re going to have to build upon that coalition,” Moan said.
But those who left over Buchanan’s candidacy question whether the party is worth saving.
“Its a brand name,” former chairman Russell Verney said. “If the brand name gets tarnished, you may have to step away from it.”
Indeed, Nader, who ran on such traditional Reform Party issues as campaign finance reform and trade, may wind up being Perot’s heir, suggested Jim Mangia, the party’s founding national secretary.
“If his independent movement is going to grow, he’s going to have to reach out to those center forces,” Mangia said. “Is there room for the radical center in Nader’s movement? Those of us who are left standing will be coalescing and discussing what we’re going to do from here.”
“The real foundation is the 530,000 municipal, county and state elected officials,” Verney said. “Rather than a national party, it’s more important to have 50 state political parties and focus on the fundamentals. If and when a competitive national candidate comes along that can unify the 50 state parties, we have the support system in place to assist that campaign.”
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.