Silly Third Party Musings

Thomas Friedman engages in some early speculation about a serious third party presidential run. As usual, such speculation ignores the basic structures of American politics.

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.

To wit:

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).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Thank you for commenting on this, Steven. You said what I would have said on the subject and probably better.

    The significance of third party movements in the United States has historically been the influence they’ve had on the two major parties rather than constituting enduring competition for either of them. I think of the New York State Liberal and Conservative Parties, for example.

    The unlikelihood of the emergence of an enduring third party should detract our attention from the dissatisfaction with both of the main political parties today. To some degree I suppose that is to be expected given the trend over time of both parties to shift in the direction of programmatic parties. IMO is that what’s remarkable is that the ideologues whom we might have expected would be happier with the parties they’ve remade in their images are dissatisfied, too.

  2. MSS says:

    Alas, anecdote-based reasoning sells more papers (or ads on their websites, I should say nowadays) than does institutional analysis.

    Still, as I always say, virtually pure two-partism in the USA is still not what would be strictly expected by any of the institutional reasons you give, Steven. The electoral college or plurality elections for House and Senate, for example, could support other parties with regional bases. Presidentialism, like plurality elections, is nowhere associated with such a dearth of party options as it is here. Of course, no one else has primaries quite like ours, but in one of the few other countries that has mass-based primaries for choosing party leaders and legislative candidates, Israel, it has not exactly consolidated the party system.

    You leave out one really crucial factor: the campaign finance system. If there were more Ross Perots, there would be more serious challenges to the big two. But there are only so many billionaires, and most of them prefer to spend their money buying the big two than trying to become president themselves.

  3. @MSS: I am becoming increasingly convinced that the major institutional factor here is the primary system which does take away the incentive for even regionally based third parties to emerge. Indeed, it has been possible to have regional factions with the mainline parties for decades because of the combination of the primary system and federalism.

    I take the point that the EC and especially SMD could support third parties (and, indeed, there are, as you have noted before, ample examples of SMD with third parties), but I think that the primary system mitigates against the incentive to develop regional third parties.

  4. Tano says:

    I must admit that I really do not understand this abiding fascination with third parties. As if a new party is somehow going to be populated by a different type of person or politcian, or would somehow be operating in a different political environment such that the result would be significantly different from what we have now.

    I tend to see the electoral process in a manner akin to a tournament. You start with lots of competitors (see this as either people or ideas) for a particular prize – office, and that group gets winnowed out over time, through the ability, or lack of ability to raise money, to win over activist volunteers, to gain endorsements, and, of course, through the primary voting system. And then you end up in the championship round with two left standing, and everyone gets a vote in choosing the winner.

    If the two main brackets (the two parties) are sufficiently broad based and open to new ideas, then any and every political movement that bubbles up can find expression in one or the other party. And I think that is pretty much the system we have – that the tea party people have a home in the GOP is just the latest manifestation of this. Earlier conservative movements also found expression in the GOP, whereas the civil -rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the gay rights movement etc etc all found fertile ground in the Democratic Party. One of the great annoyances that Dems had with the Naderites was precisely because of the sense that Nader’s ideas were welcome in the Democratic party – not that the party necessarily embraced them all, but was very much open to having those arguments within the party, and being affected by them.

    I have seen in my lifetime the makeup of the two parties change dramatically, so I do think it fair to claim that they are plastic vehicles open to be taken over by movement coming up from below.

    An added benefit of the two party system is that the eventual winner would have a majority of votes, thus lending a democratic legitimacy to the outcome. In fact, I would argue that a well-functioning electoral system’s primary function is to produce a democratically legitimate outcome – and having third or fourth parties seriously undermines this (unless one were to have a system of (ideally instant) runoffs}.

    Third parties competing in the “championship round” are simply a manifestation of an electoral system that has failed to resolve the lower level disputes and failed to bring about the compromises necessary to put together a coherent coalition prepared to rule. As we see in many European and other democracies that have many parties, if these compromises are not effected prior to the election, then they need to be worked out afterwards. And oftentimes they are not – which is what leads to the paralysis that seems to plague so many legislatures that are ruled by coalitions of parties.

  5. ponce says:

    Thomas Friedman’s readers don’t like to think too hard.

    And that’ okay.

  6. James says:

    Insurgent : Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus:” Rebellious”.

    Campaign Challenger, Hat n the Ring, I guess I missed the flip to Insurgent.

    Insurgents I thought describes “Over There”.

    Hillary want to do away with the Electoral College, any thoughts?

    I’ve been rebellious, but don’t recall any insurgency activity 🙂

    James: Flat lands of Texas

  7. john personna says:

    I’m happier about increased independent registration(*). Perhaps that is the equal and opposite reaction to increasingly partisan parties.

    California decline-to-state voters at all-time high

    * – watch out for capital-I Independents, not the same thing.

  8. @James:

    I would consider, for example, Rand Paul’s run for the KY nomination or Christine O’Donnell’s in Delaware to fit the exact definition of “insurgent” that you quoted.

    Even better, check out the 2nd possible fed from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:” one who acts contrary to the policies and decisions of one’s own political party”

    Again: the KY GOP establishment opposed Paul and the GOP DE establishment opposed O’Donnell.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    All too true Steven. Friedman, whose star seems to have faded somewhat of late, has long had a propensity for over reaches like this one. His columns are larded with them.

  10. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Just wait until November. You will be able to count Tea Party influence. Or you can sit around with your head up your rear and make stupid remarks like those commonly available here.

  11. madawaskan says:

    rather than engaging in the anecdote-based analysis of Friedman).

    This is otherwise known as –

    A general lack of willingness to play ball in the monkey house. The ancedotes being about as fresh smelling…

  12. James says:

    Insurgent: Oxford American College Dictionnary “Armed Insurgent”, “Insurgnet Attacts”
    Seems unnecessarly Militant.

    James has this behavior been observed in the “Status Quo” ?

    James flat lands of Texas (BPP)?

  13. @James

    I didn’t use the term “armed insurgent.”

  14. James says:

    I didn’t use the term “armed insurgent.” Point Taken

    When the Electronic Media show cases Insurgents (common useage) they usually have more armorment then feathers.


  15. You could add to your list such factors as ballot access laws that favor the two big parties by requiring small parties to qualify for the ballot by expensive petition drives that are subject to challenge.

  16. I think part of the problem is that all the third parties seem to focuse almost all of their effort on winning the presidency, rather than House races.

  17. sam says:

    Aren’t there only two successful third-party stories in US history? TR’s Bullmoose Party (and I’m not sure really how successful that was), and the emergence of the Republican Party out of the wreckage of the Whigs in the aftermath of the Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854? (And, really, our current political climate is to that of the 1850s as sniffles is to viral pneumonia, right?)

  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    You could make the case that the Reform Party could be deemed “successful.” While they didn’t win the Presidency, Jesse Ventura did win the governorship in Minnesota as a Reform Party candidate. When was the last time a third party even did that well?

  19. sam says:

    Yeah, well Minnesota’s always kinda marched to a different drummer. See, Minnesota Farmer Labor Party, e.g. (The DFL is, of course, local to Minnesota, but it’s not unlike the Tea Party in that one could argue that just as the TP a segment of the Republican Party, so the DFL is just the national Democratic Party in local clothing).