Final returns are still weeks away, but it's not too early to acknowledge one of the big surprises of the presidential election of 2008: the disastrous decline of fringe party candidates in a year that once seemed ripe for their efforts.
As recently as November, 2007, CNN's Lou Dobbs flatly predicted that neither a Democrat nor a Republican could win the White House this time: the certain victor, he declared, would be an Independent or the representative of some newly emergent protest party. His book, "Independents Day: Reawakening the American Spirit," became a major bestseller.
On a similar note, Douglas E. Schoen, former campaign consultant to President Clinton, published "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two Party System" early in 2008, also heralding a breakthrough year for a third party contender who could plausibly capture the White House. Meanwhile, a group known as "Unity '08," comprised of former officeholders and prominent political operatives from both major parties, promised a "Re-United States of America" and promoted an independent fusion "ticket" that would feature a former Democrat and a former Republican as running mates. For several months, speculation surrounded New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who talked of funding his own campaign to the tune of more than $500 million; before he rejected the idea, Bloomberg reportedly discussed running together with outgoing Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska.
Even after these dreams of some independent "unity ticket" began to fade, energized Third Party activists continued to proclaim 2008 as a potential breakthrough year. The Libertarian Party, which had fielded little-known ideologues (like 2004's nearly invisible Michael Badnarik) as its presidential candidates for more than two decades, finally secured a well-known former Congressman (Bob Barr of Georgia) to head their ticket. On the left, the Green Party welcomed the candidacy of another former House member from Georgia: the fiery and charismatic Cynthia McKinney. The Constitution Party, fanning conspiratorial fears of a "North American Union" and 9/11 as an inside job, selected radio preacher Chuck Baldwin. And two much-publicized perennial candidates – Ralph Nader on the left and Alan Keyes on the right – launched their own vigorous independent campaigns.