Third Parties

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?

Quite right.

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.

FILED UNDER: Best of OTB, Political Theory, The Presidency, , , , , , , ,
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. Jim says:

    Third party candidates….yes they won’t win but they can change the status. Our system will only allow two real viable parties but they can change. When was the last time anyone voted for the Whiggs (spellng). Of the two major parties, I think the democrats are the most vulnerable. The Republicans seem to have a fairly coherent base. The Democrats don’t: you have the unions (socially conservative and extremely patriotic) clashing with those who aren’t. To add a third fracture point you have all the single interest groups whether it is the ladies at NARAL or those of the NAACP. There doesn’t appear to be a unifying element to the democrats beside the Republican boogyman. There isn’t anyone to take the Democrat’s place currently, but a few more years out of power…you might start seeing the successor party. It won’t be the greens but maybe something else. I am not quite sure what.

  2. Scott Harris says:

    There are those that decry the lack of coalition politics required by parlimentary systems. But the reality is that each of our main parties is de facto a coalition party. We allow small minorities influence, but our system demands that they work within the system if they are to have any hope of success. This tends to moderate the extremes.

    But it is not impossible to obtain heavy influence over a party. In the case of the Democratic party, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era successfully gained control of the Democratic party. Not long after, in response to Roe v. Wade, the Religious Right was born under Falwell, mutated under Pat Robertson and now has tremendous influence in the Republican party.

    Third parties are mostly about laziness. Those too lazy to work within the system for real change form third parties and spend their time congratulating one another on their own moral superiority. It is an exercise in narcisism.

    (I say mostly because the Reform Party didn’t fit this mold. It fell apart because of the excentricity of it main backer, but it was a real effort at making change.)

  3. AST says:

    I think that a lot of Neo-cons are more a libertarian blend of liberal (legalize drugs and porn) and conservative (free markets, cut government) ideas. As traditional liberals give up and die out, the new movement might be libertarian.

    I know it sounds counterintuitive, since liberals are supposed to believe in bigger government, a la the New Deal, but the old coalitions are collapsing and socialism is no longer credible. What’s left but the civil liberties, which seem to have more appeal than straight democracy?