John Anderson, Independent Who Ran for President, Dies at 95
Congressman seemed ‘more interested in ideas than in power’
U.S. electoral system controlled by two parties is ‘broken’
John B. Anderson, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who challenged the two-party system by running as an independent candidate in the 1980 presidential election, has died. He was 95.
He died Dec. 3 in Washington, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement released by Anderson’s family.
The 10-term legislator campaigned as a centrist alternative to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Jimmy Carter, espousing a mix of conservative and liberal ideology. He supported a balanced budget and limits on federal spending, while calling for a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to discourage unnecessary driving and bolster Social Security.
Though his poll numbers climbed to about 25 percent several months before the election, Anderson received only 6.6 percent of the vote in November and failed to win a single electoral vote. Reagan won in an electoral landslide, carrying 44 states.
Anderson’s challenge to the two-party system inspired future independent candidates such as Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000. He helped found the Center for Voting and Democracy, now known as FairVote, which supports election reforms including a national popular vote for president.
In Congress, Anderson started as a strict conservative, winning a seat on the House Committee on Rules and chairmanship of the Republican Conference. He later drifted to the left, angering GOP colleagues with his support of civil rights, anti-poverty legislation, equal rights for women and federal funds for abortion. He was one of the first Republicans to call for President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.
“I don’t want to sound vainglorious because, after all, I failed in the biggest challenge of all when I tried to become president,” Anderson said in 2002. “Let’s say I am satisfied that I have had a fairly useful life and that I have accomplished a few things, and hopefully they will contribute to a better future.”
John Bayard Anderson was born Feb. 15, 1922, in Rockford, Illinois, the son of a Swedish-American grocer. He had a strict religious upbringing and belonged to the Evangelical Free Church, a small Protestant denomination with a fundamentalist theology.
He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but left school to enlist in the Army in 1943 during World War II.
After the war, Anderson returned to the University of Illinois, where he received a bachelor’s degree.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1949, he worked for the U.S. Foreign Service.
Anderson was elected state’s attorney in Winnebago County, Illinois, in 1956, and four years later, at age 38, won a seat in the House of Representatives in a solidly Republican district northwest of Chicago. In was first of 10 two-year terms in the House.
In 1980, Anderson joined a crowed field of Republican presidential hopefuls that included Reagan and George H.W. Bush. His best showings were second-place finishes in Massachusetts, where Bush won, and Vermont, where Reagan came in first.
He dropped out of the Republican primary in April and announced that he would run in the general election on the National Unity ticket. He later chose former Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey, a Democrat, as his running mate.
“The U.S. has rarely seen a presidential candidate like Anderson, who seems more interested in ideas than in power,” Time magazine said about the white-haired, bespectacled congressman. “His speeches, delivered with moralistic fervor that led one colleague to dub him ‘St. John the Righteous,’ are closely reasoned talks devoid of applause lines; audiences usually listen to them in deep attentive silence.”
In September, Anderson debated Reagan on national television after Carter boycotted the event in protest of Anderson’s inclusion as a third-party candidate. A month later, the League of Women Voters decided not to include him in the next televised forum, and Reagan and Carter debated one-on-one.
Anderson called his exclusion from that debate “absolutely devastating” to his campaign.
“The primary thing that I could think of was that on the television sets as people across the country watched that debate, it was a two-man race,” he told Jim Lehrer of PBS in 1999.“I am absolutely convinced that I would have gotten more than double the vote that I did get.”
In 2000, he supported Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy for president, writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times that recounted his own struggle two decades earlier.
“The electoral system monopolized and controlled by the two majority parties was then, and continues to be, irretrievably broken,” he wrote.
Anderson and his wife, Keke, had five children.