2016 Needs a Third Party
Why you’re unlikely to hear much about an independent presidential effort in 2016.
With only 245 days before the (often not) highly important Iowa caucuses, some familiar portents of the pre-game activities have appeared.
There’s the increasingly desperate effort of the Iowa Republican Party to preserve its quadrennial exercise in extortion known as the Iowa Straw Poll. (Carroll County GOP chair Craig Williams asks of potential candidates, “If they can’t do that, how can we expect them to face ISIS?”) Several journalists wistfully suggest that perhaps, just maybe, this will be the year of the brokered convention, when we bond with the hacks of yesteryear, wondering where the votes of the Ohio delegation will go on the third ballot.
But there’s one traditional sign of the season that has yet to appear: the emergence of a movement for an independent or third party presidential run. At a time when discontent with politics as usual is peaking, and when the structural barriers to a third-party run have effectively disappeared, the silence is deafening and in sharp contrast to the previous cycles.
Back in 2007, “Unity ’08,” led by former Democratic operatives Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon, prominent Republican consultant Doug Bailey, and ex-Maine Governor (now Senator) Angus King tried to organize an online convention to slate a bipartisan national ticket.
Four years later, it was the turn of “Americans Elect.” Former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, pollster Doug Schoen, and Democrat-turned-Bush-backer Mark McKinnon tried to organize a “national on-line primary” to pick a nominee. Names like Condoleeza Rice, Warren Buffett and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg were offered up, but the effort crashed and burned.
Those efforts were fueled by a conviction that Americans are highly discontent with the two-party system. This is something polls showed eight years ago, four years—and now. Last September, Gallup reported that 58 percent of Americans want an alternative to the two parties; about the same percentage did back in 2007 and 2011. Moreover, 67 percent of Americans now say they’re comfortable with voting for an independent presidential candidate. A record high percentage of Americans identify themselves as independent (there’s less here than meets the eye, as I’ll explain in a moment), and nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way our government works.
With paralysis in Washington on display on a daily basis, it’s remarkable that a third of the country doesn’t share that opinion.
This sure feels like a fertile soil for the growth of an alternative to the two parties that have won every election for the last 155 years; especially when there’s a substantial—let’s not call it “healthy”—prospect of a general election campaign between Clinton II and Bush III whose common theme song might well be ”Don’t Stop Thinking About The Day Before Yesterday.”
And more important, two long-standing barriers to an effective third-party campaign have now been dismantled. Getting on a state ballot was once an obstacle course of Olympian dimensions: huge numbers of signatures on petitions gathered under sever constraints of time and place. But Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign spent several million dollars winning in court after court to get those restrictions thrown out. (Florida, once the most inhospitable of states, adopted a ballot access rule so friendly that in 2000, 10 presidential candidates were on the ballot—which is why Palm Beach County elections supervisor Theresa Le Pore devised a clever “butterfly” ballot to get every candidate on the same page, which….well, you know.)
In the past, third-party efforts were strangled by financial restrictions. In the wake of Watergate, campaign finance reforms provided public funds for major party candidates, while others had to wait until after the election to see if they had won enough votes to qualify for public money.
First, the appetite for such an effort is in part more rhetorical than real. Take, for instance, that “plurality” of Americans who say they are independent. As Amy Walter noted in the Cook Political Report last year, the great majority of these voters in fact vote as partisans almost all the time. It sounds good to think of yourself as independent; it suggests you are a voter of discernment and thoughtfulness. In fact, Walter says, only 10 percent of the electorate is genuinely independent.
Second, the most recent experience with a third-party campaign was a powerful—and, depending on your politics, painful—teaching moment. In 2000, Ralph Nader won just under 2.9 million votes (or 2.75 percent). Just over 97,000 of those votes came from Florida.
There’s a very plausible if not definitive case that those votes cost Gore the state, and thus the White House. In his own highly self-serving account of the campaign, Crashing the Party, Nader uses exit poll data to conclude that his campaign cost Gore more than 12,000 votes; he lost the state (officially) by 537. For chastened liberals, that outcome—and the subsequent eight years—put a powerful check on the “not a dime’s worth of difference” impulse that drives many third-party efforts.
That connects to another brake on the temptation to leave the parties: polarization. Whether the electorate has become more polarized, the parties clearly have. A Venn diagram of the Congress would show that the most liberal Republican’s voting record is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat’s, which means that the consequences of voting for an independent seem much more severe than in earlier times.
In 1992, when Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote, the gap between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush was nothing compared to the distance between Obama and Romney. For a “moderate partisan,” the risk-reward balance was very different than it is today.
Finally, there’s the underlying reality that the American political system is still heavily weighted to a two-party system. In a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation, a slice of the popular vote translates into political power, and a regional party can turn its votes into serious clout. The Scottish National Party, for example, has 56 seats in the British parliament.
In the United States, by contrast, an independent presidential campaign can at most yield a handful or two of electoral votes. In 1948, segregationist South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond won less than 2½ percent of the national vote, but won four Southern states with 39 electoral votes; Perot’s 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 won him—none.
Such an outcome will discourage even the most plausible of candidates, In the run-up to 2008, with some staffers and supporters urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run, he told me: “Look, I could spend half a billion dollars”—[words no one has spoken to me before or since in any capacity]—“and the most I’d accomplish would be to deadlock the electoral college.”
Indeed, the candidate who had the strongest reason to run was George Wallace in 1968—who hoped to wield the balance of power in the Electoral College, trading his electors for a promise to weaken the civil-rights efforts of Washington. It almost worked.
It is, of course, very early in the campaign season, however hard that is to remember in the avalanche of coverage. Discontent could ripen into something stronger something that might morph into a movement to challenge the biopoly.
Meanwhile, I’m working hard to repeal the anti-smoking ordinances of Philadelphia and Cleveland; after all, you can’t have a brokered convention without a smoke-filled room.