Sunday, November 18, 2007

Whither Third Party?

Independents are a rapidly growing block of voters--nearly one-third of today's electorate identify themselves as independents--yet of the 535 voting members of Congress, just two--Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders--are independents. No third party candidate has won the presidency since Abraham Lincoln in 1860--the party had only recently formed following the collapse of the Whigs. No third party candidate has won a single electoral vote since George Wallace in 1968. Ross Perot was a polling leader for parts of the 1992 campaign and though he finished with nearly 19% of the vote--more votes than any independent candidate in US history--he failed to garner a single electoral vote. In recent elections, third party candidates have been reduced to a spoiler's role without any serious chance of victory. So why haven't independent candidates been more successful and what obstacles do they face in 2008? Let's find out.

More than ever before, the 2008 cycle is about money and record amounts of it. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have combined to raise $170 million for their campaigns already. Most estimate that the eventual nominees from both major parties will raise and spend in excess of $100 million during this cycle. National parties will also contribute millions more to their election efforts, making this the most expensive election in history. Independent candidates don't have the fundraising machines of established candidates like Hillary Clinton and it would be nearly impossible for them to keep pace financially.

Candidates from outside the two dominant parties also find it increasingly difficult to get on the ballot in states across the country. Independent candidates would be forced to spend valuable time and resources just to appear on the ballots--tasks that the major parties often handle for their nominees. In fact, limiting ballot access has been one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats have been able to work together to achieve.

The Electoral College holds an inherent bias against third party candidates. Its winner-take-all allotment of electoral votes means that a candidate who wins 10%, 15%, or even 20% of the popular vote may come up empty in the Electoral College, as happened to Perot in 1992. Despite a strong presence across the country, Perot did not have enough concentrated votes to carry any individual state.

Voters who may find themselves ideologically in line with independent candidates often concede to voting for the "lesser of two evils" candidate from one of the dominant parties. Why? These voters are willing to compromise their principles, because voting their conscience has been equated with throwing their vote away. Just as bad, most voters instantly disregard third party candidates, because the idea that any candidate could succeed without a "D" or "R" behind their name has been made to seem impossible. The media also largely ignores these candidates, further reinforcing the two-party mindset.

For an independent candidate to have any chance at victory the right circumstances must present themselves. In 1992, an economic recession and an outrage at partisanship in Washington led many to consider Ross Perot. In 1968, divisions within the Democratic Party following the death of Robert Kennedy and the debate about Vietnam, George Wallace was able to carry several Southern states giving Richard Nixon an easy electoral win despite a close popular vote. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was able to garner 27% of the vote, thanks largely to his charisma and dissatisfaction with his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. In 2008, a similar opportunity may present itself. To many, Hillary Clinton represents Washington partisanship, which could turn off many independent voters. Rudy Giuliani's liberal social views could lead many Republicans to defect or not vote and speculation about a third party pro-life candidate has already begun. Voter dissatisfaction is also at higher rates than ever before, manifested in record low approval for President Bush and Congress.

An independent with the ability to bring new voters to the process and appeal to the disaffected voters from each party could stand a legitimate chance in 2008. Whether New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent, or any other candidate has the capability to take advantage of the opportunity (if it even presents itself) remains to be seen. One thing is clear, however, independents are a rising force in US politics and both major parties would be wise to appeal to them or they risk becoming an afterthought.

Cross-posted at Political Realm.


The Angry Independent said...

Excellent commentary..

You hit the nail right on the head regarding what is going on.

Independents are a growing block....but have no representation. One solution would be to build an alternative party infrastructure ...and really build something from the ground up that would be long lasting...rather than these fringe movements that we see every 4-8 years that come and go. Unfortunately, The American public doesn't seem to have the will to do this.

And I have emphasized the problem of Democrat and Republican efforts to shut out third Parties. It's one area where they seem to work together pretty well in a bipartisan fashion. They want to secure their dominance. I see the same thing with the Commission on Presidential Debates... the commission routinely tries to keep 3rd Party candidates out of the process.

All of these problems represent the reason why I don't see this country and especially this process as Democratic.

In every other major Democracy... when people become this dissatisfied with their political parties... the people create another party. This is why you have Countries in Europe with 3, 4, 5, 6 or more active (significant) Political Parties. Here in the U.S., this does not happen.

The issue of money also raises the need for public funding of campaigns. Let all the candidates work with the same amount of money to help even the playing field.

Sounds fair and Democratic... but it's not going to happen.

What we have in this country are coronations.... not free and fair election campaigns. This is why I choose not to vote. For me, going to vote is simply contributing to the the lie that there is a fair and Democratic process taking place. The lie that says I am living in a Democracy.

I don't think fundamental change will happen in my lifetime.
The only thing that we can do in a false Democracy is to try to hold these politicians accountable... catch them lying, etc.

Anonymous said...

Being an independent voter can be a two-edge sword. In some states registering None-Of-The-Above locks you out of deciding who runs. In NY that 2.5m voters. These voters do not to be in a party but need their voces heard. Each state has different options so there is no one answer. Trying to answer this question are organizations like CUIP, The Committe for a Unified Independent Party. Use this link for more information.

Liberal Arts Dude said...

Excellent commentary! The article does hit the nail right on the head as to the obstacles being faced by any third-party effort here in the US. I am curious what types of systemic, cultural or political advantages other countries enjoy which allow for an easier time for alternative political parties to form and to be a force. Is it just a matter of political will or are other factors in play to make the formation of a viable third party feasible?

Robert B. Winn said...

All voters in the United States were independent voters until after the election of 1800 because there were no organized political parties in the American government before that time.
So now those of us who are independent voters are supposed to be all discouraged because political parties have taken away all of the rights of American citizens. President George Washington predicted in great detail what would happen if the people of the United States started to support political parties. Political parties are exactly what the first President said they were, self-created societies which seek special status and special privileges for themselves in government the way royalty have special status in European government.
Independent voters are not a party. Attempts to make them a party will not succeed. They are what George Washington said all Amercan voters should be, people registered to vote. If political parties have deprived independent voters of anything to vote for, perhaps independent voters should ask themselves, Why?
The remedy for this kind of government is simple. Independent voters should register as candidates for office by whatever means are left to them to become candidates. In some states this means registering as write-in candidates. Corrupt two-party control of the lives of Americans should not go unopposed.
Finally, here are the results on independent voter registration in Arizona after Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano signed into a law a Senate bill removing the option to register independent from the Arizona voter registration form leaving only a space marked Specify Party Preference.
2000-2002 107,715
2002-2004 165,771
2004-2006 26,483

To any independent voter who believes political parties are benevolent organizations that have the best interests and welfare of independent voters at heart, think again. They are exactly what George Washington said they would be.