Third Man

Fort Lauderdale's John B. Anderson ran for president in 1980 and paved the way for spoiler candidates

As a result, Galston boarded a train for Washington, D.C., and headed to Anderson's headquarters. "I knocked on the door and said I wanted to work for the campaign," he remembers. He joined Anderson's policy staff and eventually became speechwriter.

The campaign steadily attracted young intellectuals like Galston. Anderson had established a fiscally conservative economic plan and a liberal social agenda and proposed radical ideas -- even by today's standards -- that he refused to tone down, even under pressure. Twenty-four years before gasoline topped $2 per gallon and Social Security went on life support, Anderson proposed what he termed his "50-50 Plan." The idea: Raise gas taxes by 50 cents per gallon and reduce Social Security taxes by 50 percent. Newspaper columnists and cartoonists began to comment on the courage of his proposals. In less than a year, he'd gone from anonymous congressman to Republican contender.

"There was a feeling that this could happen," recalls Cliff Brown, the campaign's research director, who is now a political science professor at Union College in New York City. "Jimmy Carter was a national unknown [in 1976], and that was on everybody's mind. What Anderson could come to represent -- and did ultimately -- was a serious constituency within the Republican Party, namely the professional class."

John B. Anderson's 1980 campaign literature positioned him as a political maverick.
Colby Katz
John B. Anderson's 1980 campaign literature positioned him as a political maverick.

Unlike Vermont's Dean this year, Anderson lacked the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks to provide him with overnight name recognition. That burdened the candidate well into the primary campaign season. By contrast, everyone knew his chief opponent, Reagan, from years of movies and television shows like Death Valley Days.

But Anderson was such a dark horse that he'd become the butt of a joke on Saturday Night Live. During "Weekend Update," Jane Curtin sat in front of a picture of the Illinois congressman. "The man shown above is said to be a Republican candidate for president of the United States," she said. "He is described as a white Caucasian male, 57 years old. If you have seen him, please call the following toll-free number."

That sparked an idea in Bisnow, by then de facto press secretary for the campaign: "I called up SNL and said, 'Is there any way of getting John Anderson to participate in a skit?'"

There was. But the show's producers and Anderson had to work around federal laws requiring equal time for candidates. The skit aired a week after the Iowa caucus, the first stage of the primary, in which Anderson finished sixth, far behind front-runners Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. The skit showed the various candidates trying to win the vote of an Iowa farm family. Bush offered to fold laundry. John Connally, a former Texas governor, said he'd buy the daughter a pony. Reagan was asleep in the upstairs bed. And Anderson? No one had heard of any such candidate. Then the segment ended and the camera zoomed into the live audience, focusing on a tall, white-haired man with large eyeglasses. "Everybody realized, wow, that's the real John Anderson," Bisnow remembers fondly. Because he didn't speak, equal-time laws weren't violated.

The appearance provided the campaign with a much-needed bump in the polls. It also proved to be a tried-and-true political maneuver. In 2000, the audience reached by SNL was deemed so important that both Bush and Gore made guest appearances during their presidential campaigns. Neither presidential candidate has so far appeared this year -- though both have done the talk-show circuit. In Anderson's case, young people, particularly college students, began to support the campaign following the comedy skit. In the second primary vote, in New Hampshire, Anderson jumped to fourth. The campaign then moved to Massachusetts and Vermont, airing radio spots that played off the SNL appearance. They were simple, four-word clips:

John Who?

John Anderson.

"Before January, Anderson was only an asterisk in the polls," says Gerry Gras, a former Anderson staffer who is now active in the California Green Party. "Then people got so excited that they started coming out to support him."

Anderson still had raised less than $1 million, putting him at a disadvantage to his well-heeled opponents, who were both nearing $2 million in funding. (A joke compared to the more than $200 million George W. Bush raised in this year's primaries.) It ultimately hurt him. On March 4, he lost both states, finishing a close second to Reagan in Vermont and a razor-thin second to Bush in Massachusetts.

Yet dollar for dollar, Anderson was the winner. "We were getting $1.39 votes, Reagan was getting $30 votes, and Bush was getting $20 votes," remembers former campaign Communications Director Donald O. Graul Jr., who is now executive director of Washington Independent Writers, a scribe's union in D.C. "The problem was running on a very, very, very low-budget, high-volunteer campaign. You can only reach so far."

Anderson never regained his momentum in the primary. He lost the next vote in Illinois, finishing second to Reagan, and then lost again in Wisconsin, a liberal bastion he'd expected to win. The Republican voters made it clear: John B. Anderson wasn't their candidate.

Then the idea -- the big idea -- percolated through the campaign. Anderson had drawn support across party lines. Many of his volunteers were Democrats; many of his campaign contributions came from the left.

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