Third parties don't have a chance

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Dec 19, 2003 12:00 AM

The lack of competition for the Republican presidential nomination and the increasing likelihood that Howard Dean will be the Democratic nominee seem to be feeding renewed talk about third party candidates. It is being fueled by a belief that the Internet has helped make the major parties obsolete.

On both the Republican and Democratic sides of the fence, there is talk about third parties. Libertarians and many conservatives within the Republican Party are deeply frustrated with President Bush's budgetary profligacy and a number of other issues. The libertarians feel the war in Iraq has been a mistake and are gravely worried about the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. Conservatives support the war and are not too concerned about lost civil liberties, but they are deeply concerned about homosexual marriage, the failure to get conservative judges confirmed and other social issues.

Democrats are once again worried about Ralph Nader. Many believe that his Green Party campaign in 2000 kept Al Gore out of the White House. Assuming that all Nader's votes would have gone to Gore, the latter would have carried Florida easily. Yet Nader is once again making noises about running in 2004. At the same time, some of Dean's people are making not-so-subtle noises about Dean running as a third party candidate should he lose the Democratic nomination. In effect, they are warning the party establishment not to gang up on Dean, or he will guarantee that the Democratic candidate loses.

Of course, those in opposite parties are not disinterested observers in what is going on within the competition. It certainly won't break any Republican hearts if Nader or Dean runs in a third party. Their chance of winning that way is zero. They will simply split the liberal vote, ensuring a Republican victory. At the same time, liberals have been doing what they can to stoke dissent within Republican ranks. An October article by Noah Shachtman on the liberal American Prospect Magazine website (www.prospect.org) detailed libertarian complaints about the Bush administration, encouraging those in the Republican Party to move over to the Libertarian Party.

Some conservatives are making the same argument. Writing in Pat Buchanan's American Conservative Magazine (www.amconmag.com), James Antle predicted that small government conservatives would desert the Republican Party over its increasing embrace of the state under the guise of "compassionate conservatism." While there is no evidence of this as yet, it is true that Libertarian Party candidates at the state level have sometimes gotten enough votes to elect a losing Republican had he gotten their votes.

Third party talk was given a boost by economist Everett Ehrlich in The Washington Post on Dec. 14. Building on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase, Ehrlich argued that much of what parties do is process costly information. Since the Internet has greatly lowered the cost of information, the value of parties has greatly diminished. Evidence for this view is demonstrated by Howard Dean's ability to use the Internet for fund raising and organization, which allowed him to run an insurgent campaign outside traditional party channels.

While I agree that the Internet has made insurgent campaigns easier to run within parties, I don't believe that it has done much to aid third parties. The reason is that the Constitution demands that the president receive an absolute majority of the Electoral College. This means that it is virtually impossible to elect a third party candidate as president. In practice, this has tended to make third parties unworkable at the state level, as well. Various state laws, such as those making it difficult for third parties to get on the ballot, reinforce the dominance of the two major parties.

In short, the Constitution would have to be amended and the election laws of every state would have to be drastically revised in order to make third parties viable even in the Internet age.

One reform I have long favored that is more doable would be to allow third party votes to be aggregated with those on major party lines. This can be done in 10 states, according to the New Majority Education Fund (www.nmef.org). Most prominent is New York, which has long had an influential Conservative Party, Liberal Party and Right to Life Party. When a major party candidate is endorsed by one of these third parties, votes on their line are added to his vote total. This makes their endorsement valuable and gives third parties more influence without upsetting the basic electoral system.

The recent California election is evidence that there is no real demand for third parties. Despite the fact that anyone with $3,500 could be on the ballot for governor and with 135 people running, 95.5 percent of the final vote went to candidates openly identifying themselves as either Republicans or Democrats.