The persistent American fascination with third parties and fringe candidates defies every lesson of history, logic, human nature and common sense. No minor party candidate has ever won the presidency or, for that matter, even come close. For the most part, these ego-driven “independent” adventures in electoral narcissism push the political process further away from their professed goals, rather than advancing their agendas or ideas.
Nevertheless, a clear majority of Americans (58%) in September, 2007, told the Gallup Poll that the two major parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed”, while only 39% agree with a statement that the established parties “do an adequate job of representing the American people.” A Rasmussen Survey (May, 2007) produced similar results, with 58% agreeing with the statement that “it would be good for the United States if there were a truly competitive third party,” and only 23% disagreeing. Among religious conservatives, prominent leaders talk openly of backing a kamikaze candidate if Rudy Giuliani becomes the GOP nominee, and a Rasmussen telephone survey shows a striking 27% of Republicans willing to back a “Pro Life Third Party” in the event that the former New York Mayor heads the ticket. In his illiterate and all-but-unreadable new book “Independents Day,” CNN’s fatuous fraud Lou Dobbs expresses similar eagerness to abandon the traditional two-party system. “Now I don’t know about you,” he harrumphs, “but fundamentally I don’t see much of a difference between Republicans and Democrats…The creation of a third, independent choice, one that has the concerns of American working people as its basis, is the way we must proceed.”
This unquenchable enthusiasm for new parties and marginal, ego-driven candidacies rests on a foundation of profound ignorance and unassailable historical illiteracy. Even a nodding acquaintance with the American past reveals uncomfortable but incontrovertible facts about independent or minor party campaigns.
1. ON A NATIONAL BASIS, THIRD PARTIES ALWAYS LOSE – AND RUIN THE CAREERS OF THE LEADING PARTICIPANTS.
Consider the fate of the Bonkers Billionaire, Ross Perot, the most formidable minor party candidate of the last 95 years. In 1992, against Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, he invested millions of dollars from his personal fortune and drew an impressive 18.9% of the popular tally (though he failed to win even a single electoral vote). Four years later, he tried again but more than half of his former supporters abandoned him, and he polled a scant 8.4%. The “Reform Party” he had assembled as a personal vehicle for his quixotic quest quickly collapsed when Perot lost interest in it: in 2000, “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan claimed the party’s nomination and drew a spectacularly pathetic 0.4% -- even fellow-fringie Ralph Nader topped his vote total by an astonishing ratio of six-to-one. If anyone today recalls Ross Perot and the Reform Party they do so only as a punch-line, or as a factor in allowing Bill Clinton to win the White House twice without ever winning a majority of the popular vote. Perot’s credibility as a political commentator all but evaporated in the wake of his campaigns --- and Buchanan’s stature also suffered major damage even after his return to the Republican fold to back Bush in 2004.
Other conservatives similarly destroyed once-promising careers with their third party obsessions. Howard Phillips, twice elected President of the Student Council at Harvard, qualified as a rising Republican star when he headed two federal agencies in the Nixon administration. In 1992, however, he succumbed to the temptation of running for President as candidate of the “US Taxpayers Party” (later re-branded as the “Constitution Party.”), and then ran again in ’96 and 2000. Each of these pompous and preachy campaigns drew less than 0.2% and made him an irrelevant (though incurably self-righteous) annoyance to the conservative movement.
Time and again, prominent leaders wasted their time and shattered their reputations with their third party misadventures. Henry A. Wallace, the supremely charismatic and widely admired Vice President of the United States (1941-45), ran as the standard bearer of the leftist “Progressive Party” in 1948, and won a surprisingly paltry 2.4% -- not nearly enough to damage the re-election drive of his arch-rival, Harry Truman. Former President Martin Van Buren drew a humiliating 10% as a “Free Soil” candidate in 1848 (eight years after leaving the White House), and in 1856 another former president, Millard Fillmore, drew 22% as the anointed champion of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” or “American Party”; as a result of their fringe-party escapades, both one-time chief executives ended their careers in embarrassment.
Even Theodore Roosevelt, a wildly popular ex-president and war hero, damaged his national standing when he launched his ill-fated “Bull Moose” campaign in 1912. Yes, TR managed the best showing for any third party candidate in American history—with 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes. But he still finished 15% behind the victorious Woodrow Wilson (a man he thoroughly despised), while falling a full 177 votes short of earning an electoral college majority. After his long, bitterly frustrating campaign to return to the White House (capped by receiving a bullet in the chest from a would-be assassin during a campaign speech in Milwaukee), TR dropped his association with the “Bull Moose” Progressives and scuttled back toward the Republican Party. Fuming with impatience during eight years of Wilsonian rule, he dreamed of making a last run for the White House – as a Republican—and might well have won his party’s nomination in 1920 except for his untimely death at age 60 in January, 1919.
While not even a larger than life, Mt. Rushmore figure like Teddy Roosevelt could shake the third party curse when it came to a presidential race, some prominent independent candidates have defied the odds and won state-wide elections from time to time. Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura came to power as Minnesota’s governor in 1998, winning a three-way race as the “Reform Party” (and later, “Independence Party” candidate), but his stalled, ineffectual governance (with no party colleagues in the legislature to support him) made him a one-term wonder. On a similar note, James Buckley (brother of the great conservative intellectual William Buckley) won a stunning electoral upset in 1970 as the Conservative Party candidate for US Senate against a liberal Democrat and a liberal Republican. Buckley, however, also lasted only one term: he lost his re-election bid (even though he ran this time as candidate of both the Conservative Party AND the GOP) in a crushing landslide to moderate Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Other minor party “success stories” in races for Governor, Senator, House of Representatives, or mayor, proved similarly short-lived – even among the surging Populists of the 1890’s. In 1896, they reached a high water mark with 21 seats in the House of Representatives (compared to 204 Republicans and 113 Democrats), but just two years later their representation plummeted to four. By 1902, just six years removed from their glory days, the Populists elected not a single member of Congress—and never again made serious races for federal office.
2. NO, THE REPUBLICANS NEVER CONSTITUED A THIRD PARTY
Whenever I take the time on the radio to discuss the obvious and inevitable futility of minor party campaigns, some smug caller will try to play “gotcha” by reminding me that my own beloved GOP began its political life as a minor party, and managed to elect an underdog nominee named Lincoln in the fateful election pf 1860. It makes for a good story, and I know it allows misled minions to feel better to believe that it’s true, but the Republicans never operated as a third party. By the time of the first Republican County Convention (in Ripon, Wisconsin, on March 20, 1854) the Whig Party had already collapsed and shattered, hopelessly divided between its Northern anti-slavery branch and the Southern “Cotton Whigs.” Refugees (including numerous Congresmen, Senators and others) from the Whig debacle determined to fill the vacuum and, joined by a few anti-slavery Democrats and former Free Soilers, they launched their new national organization.
The first time candidates ever appeared on ballots with the designation of the new Republican Party came with the Congressional elections of 1854 and the fresh organization won stunning success from the very beginning. That very first year the Republicans won the largest share of the House of Representatives (108 seats, compared to 83 for the Democrats, along with fifteen Senate seats (including the majority of those contested in that election). In other words, the Republicans began their existence not as a third party, or even a second party, but as the instantly dominant party on the ballot. The future “Grand Old Party” showed itself a Grand Young Party not only with its Congressional candidates, but with its first-ever Presidential nominee – John C. Fremont – in 1856. Rather than making the traditional, pointless and masturbatory third party gesture and winning 2% or 10%, Fremont made a real race of it against the Democrat James Buchanan: losing the popular vote 45% to 33%, and the electoral vote, 174 to 118. The real third party candidate was former President Fillmore, whose anti-immigrant Know Nothing campaign drew a few remnants of the Whigs and took just enough votes away from Fremont in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to give Buchanan narrow victories and the electoral majority. By the time they nominated Lincoln four years later, Republicans commanded clear majorities in nearly all the northern states and fully expected to sweep more than enough of those states (especially in light of Democratic divisions) to put him in the White House.
. In the pre-Civil War election of 1860, the Republicans hardly represented an upstart third party effort: they won a clear majority of 59% of the electoral vote and a comfortable plurality (40%) of the popular vote. The real “third party” in this election involved the Southern Democrats who abandoned their national nominee, Stephen A. Douglas, and campaigned for Vice President (and future Confederate general) John C. Breckinridge, winning 18% of the popular vote and 72 electoral votes. Meanwhile, former Cotton Whigs and pro-union Democrats from border states launched a fourth party campaign, winning 13% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes for their man.
In other words, the one election in which the traditional two-party system broke down, and the Untied States most resembled a European multi-party system (with four different parties drawing substantial support and electoral votes) happened to be the one election that provoked the bloodiest war in US history.
In short, the election of 1860 hardly offers proof of the positive value of third (and fourth) parties, but rather illustrates their dangers. The four-way competition in the Presidential race contributed to the splitting of the union and the explosion of the national party consensus that had previously kept a divided assemblage of very different states from flying apart.
3. IT’S EASIER TO BUILD A MAJORITY WITHIN A SINGLE PARTY THAN TO WIN OVER THE WHOLE COUNTRY
The essence of political success – whether based in the real world of the electoral mainstream or even in the fantasy land of third party purists – involves persuading enough people to vote for you or your point of view so that you’re actually able to win elections.
In this context, it makes no sense whatever to believe that it’s somehow easier to reach and convince the large number of voters in a general election than to convince the relatively small number of voters in party primaries.
In general elections, any new party faces huge challenges getting on the ballot, raising money, earning press attention and competing with the established parties in terms of substance or credibility.
Primary elections, on the other hand, provide far more openings for challenging and orthodox candidates and ideas. In part, it’s a simple matter of arithmetic. Typically, primaries draw only about one fourth the voters as general elections. The self-identified partisans typically represent only about one-third of registered voters (with another third in the other party, and another third unaffiliated or independent). Meanwhile, general elections always draw much higher turnouts than primaries – so the same number of committed supporters who could bring victory in a primary will fall far short of a majority (or even a plurality) in the general election.
This simple but obvious logic obliterates the most frequent justification for third parties: the claim that we’re “shut out” of one (or both) of the established parties so we have no choice but to run an insurgent, independent campaign. But the question is if you don’t have enough support to win a party primary, how will you ever draw enough backing to beat the far more formidable competition (among a far larger group of voters) in the general election?
If you can’t mount a persuasive campaign for the Republican or Democratic nomination, how can any rational politico expect to conduct a successful campaign among the voters at large?
These questions count as particularly pertinent concerning presidential campaigns. Because of the disproportionate importance of small state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, a candidate can conceivably assure himself the nomination with a tiny number of votes: in a split field, a combined total of 100,000 backers can easily carry the day in either major party. In 1992, Ross Perot almost certainly could have won the Democratic (or perhaps even the Republican) contest in independent-minded New Hampshire, and gone on to become the nominee of a major party and (heaven help us) President of the United States.
If you mean to mobilize an army of committed activists to advance your political prospects, it’s inarguably more plausible to do so in specific primary states than in general election contests in fifty separate states all across the continent.
Consider the baleful example of Pat Buchanan, who enjoyed some primary success as a protest candidate against President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and then actually won the GOP New Hampshire primary (in a tight three way race with Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander) in 1996. As a Republican, Pitchfork Pat managed to mobilize “The Buchanan Brigades” and to draw literally hundreds of thousands of supporters (if not a majority). When he left the party in 2000, however, his appeal quickly disintegrated, and the hard-core of enthusiasts that had made him competitive in Republican primaries counted for nothing in the general election (and yes, 0.4% -- despite taking $12 million of federal campaign funds – counts as just about nothing).
4. RECENT CHANGES IN THE NOMINATION PROCESS HAVE MADE THIRD PARTY CHALLENGES LESS NECESSARY, NOT MORE SO
The classic justification for any candidate to walk out of his party and to launch an independent bid involves the charge that arrogant bosses have blocked his path to the nomination and thwarted the will of the people.
That claim clearly animated Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful Third Party challenge in 1912. The former president had become disillusioned with the conservative policies of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and battled him in all available primaries. TR won handily almost everywhere, with majorities in Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania. He even won a landslide victory in Taft’s home state of Ohio. Nevertheless, Taft loyalists controlled the credentials committee at the GOP convention in Chicago and seated just enough of their supporters to re-nominate the President. Furious at the transparent defiance of the clear popular preference for TR, the former president walked out of his party and summoned his own “Bull Moose” convention to seal his third party nomination some six weeks later, instantly assuring easy victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Fifty-six years later another Chicago convention raised similar issues for Democrats at the height of the Vietnam era. Anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy had won every primary between them; Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the loyalist choice of embattled president Lyndon Johnson, never bothered to contest a single one of the primary states. Nevertheless, after Kennedy’s assassination, Humphrey won the nomination (while bloody riots convulsed the streets of Chicago) because of his solid support from the party establishment.
After this nightmarish experience in 1968, the Democrats chartered “the McGovern Commission” to open up and reform the nomination process, and the Republicans soon followed suit. Never again could a candidate become his party’s standard bearer without competing in primaries; never again could a group of bosses in a “smoke filled room” (or even today in a politically correct fern-filled room) choose a nominee who hadn’t battled his way through dozens of well-publicized electoral battles in various corners of the country. The new openness of the primary process provided a number of bizarre surprises: like the 1976 nomination (and ultimate election) of an obscure, one-term Governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter.
The new importance of primaries also facilitated the abrupt ideological shifts that third party advocates invariably demand. In 1964, for instance, the process had loosened up enough to allow conservative grass-roots activists in the GOP the throw out the “Eastern Republican Establishment” and nominate outspoken conservative Barry Goldwater. To signal the depth of the change he heralded, Goldwater’s acceptance speech explicitly rejected the party’s traditional centrism, with its ringing declaration: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eight years later, the Democrats experienced a similar transformation, when the anti-war left took over the party with the nomination of George (“Come Home, America!”) McGovern and trumpeted its thoroughgoing contempt for the moderate establishment.
Finally, in 1976 conservative ideologues rallied behind Ronald Reagan and brought his challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford within a few convention votes of success. Four years later, the Reaganites swept to victory, capturing the whole machinery of the Republican Party—and demonstrating that with today’s nomination process, true believers who disdain compromise and equivocation can not only nominate their candidates of choice but shift the ideological orientation of our great political parties.
The old argument that party bosses stymie insurgent or issues-driven campaigns no longer applies to political reality– not in an era when campaigns in both parties cater so obviously to enthusiastic activists who dominate the early primaries.
5. FRINGE PARTIES GENERALLY DISCREDIT RATHER THAN ADVANCE THE ISSUES THEY EMBRACE
Apologists for minor parties regularly defend their odd-ball activism with the claim that they’re gradually, inexorably building support for their unconventional ideas. The Libertarian Party in particular insists that it’s made steady progress for its philosophy of limited government with its thirty years of tireless campaigning.
In fact, the electoral record shows dramatic deterioration in the party’s electoral appeal rather than any discernable increase in influence, as the once trendy Libertarians have morphed into the goofy and sophomoric Losertarians. The Party reached its all-time peak of success with its second major Presidential campaign under Ed Clark in 1980. Running against Ronald Reagan, Clark drew 921,000 votes and a rousing 1.06% of the electorate. The next time out, the Libertarians did barely half as well and after that the party’s fortunes continued to slide. In 2000, Libertarian nominee Harry Browne won only 0.36% and in 2004, the hapless Michael Badnarik did even worse, with less than 0.33%.
In other words, after a quarter of century or propaganda and party-building, the Libertarians succeeded in alienating two thirds of their never significant support – looking back on their 1% showing of twenty-seven years ago as a matchless achievement that’s never even come close to replication.
The traditional definition of insanity involves repeating the same self-destructive actions again and again but somehow expecting a more beneficial result. After twenty-four years of frustration, futility, and consistent public rejection, on what basis do Losertarians suddenly expect a brighter future?
Among the faceless cavalcade of Libertarian losers, one of their Presidential candidates manages to stand out – not because of his strong showing (he drew only 0.47% of the vote) but because he drew the right message from his embarrassing experience. Texas obstetrician Ron Paul carried the fringe-party’s banner in 1988 but soon thereafter returned to the Republican Party, won election to Congress, and conducted a dynamic and much publicized campaign for the GOP Presidential nomination in 2008. Dr. Paul garnered vastly more attention for his ideals and proposals as a contender for the Republican nomination than he ever did as the Libertarian nominee—a living demonstration of the ill-considered idiocy of fringe party campaigns.
Rather than advancing unconventional ideas, fringe parties most often discredit them through association with quirky political organizations far outside the political mainstream. The Prohibition Party, for instance, took opponents of alcohol out of the major parties and concentrated them in a marginal political organization which, during 134 years of fielding candidates, elected one Congressman from California (1914) and one Governor of Florida (1916) but almost nothing else. In terms of Presidential politics, the party managed its best showing ever in 1892 (2.25%), some 27 years before temperance advocates finally succeeded in achieving Prohibition through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Predictably, Republicans – rather than members of the Prohibition Party actually were the effective leaders in bringing about this historic change. The Prohibition platform succeeded, in other words, only when true-believers entered one of the established parties, leaving the fringe party and watching its electoral support decline.
By the same token, Populists saw meaningful progress for their national agenda only after the party largely collapsed and its most gifted members migrated into the Democratic Party beginning in 1896. Somehow, even crack-pot ideas (like the bizarre Populist obsession with “Free Silver”) look less menacing when they’re advocated by leaders of a well-established political organization rather than by a turbulent fringe group.
6. YOU CAN’T INFLUENCE A PARTY BY LEAVING IT
One of the most bizarre arguments for third parties involves the suggestion that walking out of one of the established parties will force it to move in your direction.
This reasoning constitutes sheer madness, of course: what sort of maniac honestly believes that he’ll exert greater impact on a political organization after he’s abandoned his membership?
In 2000, when Pat Buchanan abandoned the Republicans for his disastrous “Reform Party” race (in which he selected an LA teacher with his history of mental disability as his running mate), he took with him some of his fellow GOP advocates of a more protectionist trade policy. The result, predictably enough, was a Republican Party more unanimous than ever in support of free trade. Why should Republicans take protectionist arguments more seriously when the few supporters of such arguments have already left the party?
Party walk-outs don’t produce some sudden desire for reconciliation any more than marital walk-outs serve to strengthen a fraying relationship. When a faction abandons its major party home, it’s rarely welcomed back into the fold – especially when the party disloyalty has produced a major defeat. Take the case of Ralph Nader, for instance, with his incontestably destructive impact on Al Gore’s 2000 Presidential bid: even if the gadfly wanted to re-enter the Democratic Party, the deep resentment of his role in the election of George W. Bush would make it impossible for him to assume a position of respect or influence.
7. LOSING CAMPAIGNS DON’T SHAPE GOVERNANCE OR POLICY
For third party purists, rejection by the general public confirms their sense of moral superiority and martyrdom: winning 0.03% with uncompromising principles feels somehow nobler than winning an election through the normal compromises and actually changing the direction of politics. In this sense, fringe party activism represents the ultimate in masturbatory politics: giving intense pleasure and passing thrills to the individual participants but exerting no impact whatever on anyone else.
On those rare occasions when third parties play some decisive role in close elections, they almost always damage the candidates who more closely resemble the independent contenders. Former Republican Ross Perot, for example, destroyed Republican President George H.W. Bush, leftist Ralph Nader damaged Al Gore, and “limited government” Libertarian Senate candidates in Montana, Washington, Georgia and other states recently swung elections to big government Democrats (and in 2006 tilted at least three close elections to give Harry Reid his one-vote Senate majority).
By taking votes from the major party contender who’s ideologically most similar, and rewarding those opponents who agree with them the least, independent candidates move the political process away from their professed goals, not toward them.
Most Americans have come to understand this cruel and dangerous game, so that even the most ballyhooed fringe candidates fail to live up to their promising poll numbers. In 1980, moderate Republican John Anderson believed the surveys and pundits who said he could establish himself as a middle-of-the-road alternative to the outspoken conservative Ronald Reagan and the failed liberal standard-bearer, Jimmy Carter. In the end, Anderson drew only 6.6%, fading fast in the last days before the election as the American people began to focus on the true stakes in the choice before them.
This pattern repeats itself in almost every election: even the most intriguing third-party flirtations abruptly turn sour in the “getting serious” phase that precedes a final decision. With an evenly divided electorate providing see-saw victories for Democrats and Republicans, an individual can change history far more readily by voting for one of the major candidates than by giving his support to a laughably irrelevant fringy. A shift of 0.5% can alter the outcome of many elections, but it changes nothing if a Constitution Party candidate gets 0.7% vs. 0.2%.
In this context, the American people remain too sensible to accept the fulminations of brain-dead blowhards like Lou Dobbs. “All that seems to remain of the Republican and Democratic parties is their partisanship, their labels, and their records of intransigence and ineffectiveness over the past forty years.” Over the past forty years, Mr. Dobbs? Since 1967? The Reagan Revolution, which won the Cold War and slashed top tax rates from 70% to 28%, represented only “intransigence and ineffectiveness”? Welfare reform and balanced budgets, achieved by the Gingrich Congress in collaboration with the administration of Bill Clinton, amounted to nothing more than “partisanship”?
Third party purists say they refuse to accept a choice between “the lesser of two evils” – a wretchedly misleading line that suggests that any public servant with whom we disagree is, indeed, evil and not merely wrong. In truth, very few working politicians, Republican or Democrat, honestly qualify as “evil”: the need for winning and retaining office won’t eliminate all mediocrities, but almost always rids us of any truly malevolent individuals. The notion that electoral opponents constitute “evil” of any kind – either the lesser or greater variety – serves only to poison our politics, and to prevent mature choices between major party candidates who, while invariably flawed, give us a chance to serve our country by selecting the better of two imperfects.