Silly Third Party Musings
In his NYT column today, Thomas Friedman opines about a Third Party Rising.
I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.
First, don’t we go through this in one way or another every electoral cycle?
Second, this feels a lot more like vaporware than reality. It would seem that if there was some serious movement afoot it would be possible to talk about it in a bit more direct (and concrete) terms. At a minimum we know that it can be difficult for established pols to be late entrants into the presidential nomination contest, so the notion that some unknowns will launch forth in any significant way strikes me as unlikely, to be kind.
I would further note that if there was going to be a serious basis for a third party in the current era it would come via the Tea Party, where there is actually some amount of political energy. Instead, the Tea Party is essentially a faction of the Republican Party.
Third, Friedman’s analysis is strained and based mostly on the notion that people are angry. Indeed, not only does Friedman engage in fanciful speculation, he ignore the actual institutional parameters of the US system.
1. The Electoral College. The very nature of the electoral college is that is establishes rules that are in no way conducive to a third party run. Every state, save Maine and Nebraska uses the unit rule to allocate electoral votes. This means the winner of the plurality of the votes (i.e., the most, even if less than 50%) wins all of the electoral votes from that state. In simple terms this means that a successful third party candidate would have to be strong enough, electorally speaking, to beat both the Democrat and the Republican in a given state. This is extremely difficult to do. For example: the most successful third party candidate in recent memory was Ross Perot. In 1992 he won roughly 19% of the popular vote and won precisely zero electoral votes. He came in second, if memory serves, in only one state.
Even in Maine and Nebraska, which allocate part of their electoral votes based on the plurality winner statewide and then plurality winners at the district level, operate under the same mathematical strictures as the unit rule states.
Even if a third party presidential candidate could upset the mainline candidates in a significant number of states, the likely outcome would be throwing the election to the House of Representatives to decide, which would be dominated by one of the mainline parties.
Any third party candidate will look at the above and recognize that their chances of winning are practically zero. They will not be willing to expend either the money or the time needed to pursue such a quixotic undertaking. Further, any proper analysis will lead said candidate to realize that if they were to go through the primary process in one of the two major parties and be able to win the nomination that that would be their best route to the presidency. Indeed, Ross Perot would have been far better off in 1992 trying to win the Democratic nomination had he really wanted to be president.
This leads into the next institutional factor that Friedman is ignoring: the primary process.
2. Primaries. Third parties tend to emerge when there is a critical mass of power seeking politicians and voters who are willing to eschew the old parties in the hope that they can dislodge those older parties to one degree or the other. In many systems that strategic choice is made when a given faction of a given mainline party is shut out by either the elites of said mainline party or by the structure of the political system. However, the United States’ electoral system has a key institutional feature that makes it possible for such factions to surge within a mainline party. For example, the behavior of Tea Party-backed candidates (e.g., Joe Miller in Alaska, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Marco Rubio in Florida and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware) all demonstrate that there is a pressure valve in American political institutions, i.e., the primaries, that allows for insurgent movements/factions of the two mainline parties to be nominated to run in the general election and to have a far better chance to win office than if they went the third party route. Indeed, Ron Paul, Rand’s father, is the quintessential exemplar of this fact: despite his Libertarian leaning and activities (including being the party’s presidential nominee at one point) he has always run as a Republican for Congress.
3. The Senate. Really, as Jack Balkin rightly notes, the problem at the root of what Friedman gets at in his column is not the party system, per se, but the rules in the Senate which allow a minority of the chamber to control the legislative process. Indeed, a third party president would end up with the same problems with the Senate—if not worse, since a third party president wouldn’t even have a specific bloc of vote in the chamber with which to work.
4. And Another Thing… I won’t even get into the general effects of presidentialism on the party system or the fact that the combo of primary system and single member district plurality elections for Congress helps reinforce the two party system.
I will conclude by noting that I would be more than happy to see a serious third party emerge, but am noting what the institutional realities actually are (rather than engaging in the anecdote-based analysis of Friedman).