Steve Bainbridge challenges recent assertions by Juan Non-Volokh and Glenn Reynolds that Ralph Nader’s decision to run for president as an independent is a good thing “if it invigorates efforts to improve ballot access for third parties.”
In the United States, the Electoral College makes it almost impossible for a third party candidiate to win the Presidency. Countries in which that is not true are not demonstrably better off. Look at the last Presidential election in France: In the first round of voting, Chirac led – but got less than 20% of the vote. Worse yet, nationalist nut-job and perrenial fringe party candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the run-off with a mere 17%. Do Juan and Glenn think this is a model we should emulate?
A winner-take-all system such as ours produces two moderate “catch-all” parties. Political scientists call this phenomenon “Duverger’s Law.” Third parties, by their very definition, are those who can’t attract much popular support. While I personally rather like and respect Ralph Nader, he is a fringe candidate. The effect of his candidacy will be to siphon off 4% or so of the electorate from a candidate who is competitive, presumably John Kerry.
The amusing thing is that the third party candidates who generate the most enthusiasm tend to be sour grapes candidates who were too radical for their own parties, like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Ross Perot, in 1992 and 1996, was a possible exception. But there was nothing stopping him from seeking either the Democratic or the Republican nominations.
The value of third party candidates aside, I also reject the premise that it’s particularly difficult for serious ones to get on the ballot. Ross Perot did it twice, Ralph Nader has done it several times, and all manner of fringe parties manage to do it every year.
Update: Robert Garcia Tagorda argues that a Nader candidacy may help the Democrats.