Mickey Kaus makes the intriguing argument that Howard Dean has essentially become a party into himself and could conceivably kill off the Democratic party if he doesn’t get the nomination. I reconstruct in reverse order from Kaus’ semi-blog, semi-column in Slate:

What happens if Dean loses in the Democratic primary? As Ehrlich notes, Dean’s essentially built an entire new party for himself on the Web (“his own lists, his own money, his own organization”). Suppose one of the establishment party types he denounces, like Gephardt, defeats him and captures the Democratic “brand name.” Will Dean really just pack up and go home? Why should he? He can take his new personal portable party and keep on running, as an independent, the way John Anderson did back in 1980. His followers are fanatical enough (he could tack back to the left to keep them stoked) and the front-loading of the primary system gives him more time to make this switch and get on the ballot in enough states, no? He could argue that Gephardt will lose to Bush anyway, that it’s more important to build a movement for the future, etc.

I think this is unlikely, but it is interesting. I know some states have “Sore Loser” laws, which prevent candidates who run in party primaries from then getting on the ballot as an independent, but I’m not sure how many states have done this or how many electoral votes they have.

Several eminent emailers have suggested that Everett Ehrlich’s prediction of party decline ignores the major U.S. deterrent to splinter-party formation–the combination of the Electoral College and the rule, in all but two states, that the candidate winning the most votes gets all that state’s electors. It doesn’t pay to be a third party, in this scheme, unless you can actually win a few states. (The tendency of such winner-take-all systems to produce two-party politics is sometimes called Duverger’s Law.)


But there’s no reason the two major party slots would even continue to be called “Democrat” and “Republican.” Suppose John McCain ran as an independent in 2004 or 2008; he might win a few states and come in second in most others. The McCainiacs would then be the opposition party, and it might suddenly be the Democrats who are the third party looking in vain for a reason to stay alive. …. If McCain doesn’t work for you, substitute Dean. (In a Dean vs. Gephardt vs. Bush race, is it clear Dean would finish third? Not to me.) I still think Ehrlich is onto something fairly big. … (As my colleague Bob Wright notes in his book Nonzero, changes in information technology tend to be followed by big political/cultural shifts. It’s no accident that the Reformation happened a few decades after Gutenberg. Suddenly, you could nail a few theses on a door and they’d be distributed across a continent in days. Now–to exaggerate for a moment–you can put up a Web site and fill out some forms, and you can have a party-like political organization in all 50 states in a few weeks. Who needs Terry McAuliffe?)

This is intriguing and, of course, not without historical precedent. Duverger’s Law has in fact been operative in American history, yielding a two party system, but we’ve had several sets of two parties. But the Democrats and Republicans have dominated since the Republicans killed off the Whigs with the 1860 election.

The main thing Kaus ignores is that presidential elections don’t in and of themselves yield parties. Several charismatic third party candidates have had moderate success in presidential politics since 1860; indeed, Progessive Party nominee Teddy Roosevelt finished ahead of incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft in 1912. But the Progressives were cannibalized by the Democrats and Republicans, who co-opted their issues, and went away. More recently, the Reform Party didn’t survive the loss of Ross Perot as its nominee and, likewise, its issues were co-opted.

Even if Dean were to finish ahead of Gephardt in a three man race, the Democrats would almost surely survive. A breakaway leftist party headed by Dean would have no chance of winning Congressional seats in most of the country, let alone of ever capturing the White House. Indeed, a corrolary to Duverger’s Law is that a system such as ours will produce two catch-all parties: moderate parties more concerned about electability than ideology.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    The problem with the theory as I see it today, is that third parties in the modern era are personality (or perhaps even celebrity) based and not ideological.

    Even among Perot’s most ardent supporters, few had anything that resembled a political philosophy. It was not so much that the Reform Party could not survive without Perot, in reality Perot was the party. The same can be said of the “Dean” party. Which I think is not even the “Dean” party as much as it is the “Bush is the Devil” party.

    When you have a “party” based on the celebrity of a single person they can, by definition, not gain much power. How can he hold more than one office?

    But I will give him one major point. Dean has the names of thousands of people who gave money. That is power.