The Party Line
12:00 am
Wed May 30, 2012

Third Parties Need A Face To Succeed

In my previous post, I wrote about the failure of Americans Elect to secure a candidate for their third party attempt at the 2012 elections.  Along with the formal rules of the game, Americans Elect apparently could not get over its own rules: The viability of candidates to win the group’s primary process. 

But beyond the internal rules of the third party movement, there are other “informal” rules that play a crucial role in a third party’s viability to impact American politics, beyond the first factor of “the formal rules of the game.”

Factor 2: The “first-past-the-post” electoral rule. Contrary to some beliefs, the U.S. often doesn’t elect its representatives on a majority vote, but rather on a plurality vote — and more specifically, whoever gets one more vote than the person who came in second. 

The “first-past-the-post” system allows a candidate to win with only 43 percent of the vote (see Bill Clinton in 1992). 

Factor 3: The “single-member district” rule. When we elect members of Congress or state legislatures, we do so from what are called “single-member districts,” meaning that only one person will represent a geographic area, unlike in a “multi-member district.”

If you’re running for the presidency, then consider the Electoral College: For the top position in the nation, it’s not the popular vote, but rather the electoral vote that determines the winner. 

In 1992, Ross Perot received got 19 percent  of the popular vote, but no electoral votes.  The last third party candidate to gain any electoral votes was the 1968 presidential run of “American Independent” party candidate George Wallace, with 46 electoral votes.

What made both the Perot and Wallace runs viable (in some ways) is that they were charismatic leaders who tapped into the distrust of both political parties in a way that Americans Elect never did. 

Tapping into the reserve of independent angst without a leader is difficult to do, even in our polarized environment.

Factor 4: More Americans claim “independent” political affiliation, but do they really? According to the Gallup Poll study released at the beginning of this year, a record-high 40 percent  of Americans identify as “independent” in 2011, with Democrats claiming 31 percent  to 27 percent  for Republican.

Gallup Poll of Party Identification

So with 4 out of 10 Americans saying they don’t identify with one of the two major parties, shouldn’t this be the ideal time to have a third party?  Well, how truly “independent” are these independents?  Not very, according to the same Gallup study.

When asked “which party do you lean towards,” Independents tend to side with one party or the other.  When including “leaners” from the Independents, we get an equally divided party allegiance.

When independents break as much as they do for one of the two major parties, it leaves only about 10 percent  open to a non-majority party affiliation. 

Granted, the overall environment shows us a level of disgust and distrust of government and the political parties that make up the government at record levels.  But supporting a third party candidate may be something that the voters aren’t willing to do, because they see it as a wasted vote.

Factor 5: Third parties often end up as spoilers.  Because of all the above formal and informal rules, third party candidates come down to being party spoilers. In the 2000 Florida fiasco, Al Gore lost the Sunshine State’s electoral votes by 537 votes.  On the same ballot, Ralph Nader, a perennial third-party candidate to the left of Gore, received 90,000 votes. 

If Nader hadn’t been on the ballot and those 90,000 votes went to someone else, say Gore, would we have had the “hanging chad” controversy? Some voters are willing to cast a sincere vote for their favorite candidate even if there’s no chance of victory. And there are many other voters who are strategic by voting for the lesser of two evils, even if neither is their preference. Such voters are a challenge for third-party candidates.

With the failure of Americans Elect to become a viable third party for this year’s electoral contests, we are left with our traditional two parties, each vying to solidify their base with enough “independents” to win according to the Electoral College rules of the game.

For a future third party to overcome so many formal and informal rules, they need a combination of what our history has taught us: A group of dedicated activists willing to make the investment in the formal rules, and to have the leadership that attracts the support. 

Whether the two parties in control will allow that to happen is another rule of the game we can’t predict.

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