Concerning the imminent collapse of the two party system, it’s appropriate to paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
The campaign of 2008 has already obliterated the comfortable and conventional assumptions on a number of fronts, demonstrating that money can’t determine primary outcomes (otherwise the GOP would be preparing to nominate Mitt Romney), that race and gender don’t push voters to side with their own (or Clinton wouldn’t enjoy her big support from blue-collar males, and Obama wouldn’t sweep Idaho, Utah and North Dakota), that immigration wouldn’t emerge as a dominant issue (you’ll notice that no candidate is talking about it), or that the front-loaded calendar would produce nominees by Super Tuesday at the latest (it’s three-and-a-half months later and Clinton and Obama are still going at it).
Another piece of conventional wisdom that deserves proper burial involves the alleged rejection of the two major parties by growing legions of Americans, and the eagerly expected emergence of a dynamic new third party to fill the void.
Lou Dobbs, CNN’s reigning prince of pomposity, went so far as to predict that voters in November would reject both Republicans and Democrats and choose instead “an independent populist.” In a column from last November, he declared that “independent Americans will demand a far better choice than any of the candidates now seeking their party’s nomination. I believe next November’s surprise will be the election of a man or woman of great character, vision and accomplishment, a candidate who has not yet entered the race.”
In fact, Mr. Dobbs went so far as to advance this idea in his bestselling book, “Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit,” complete with chapter headings like “Two Parties, No Choice” and the proclamation that independents, not Republicans or Democrats, had become the dominant force in U.S. politics.
Meanwhile, on the left side of the political spectrum, former Bill Clinton campaign consultant Douglas Schoen, wrote his own book to predict an immediate revolution in our political institutions. His 2008 book, “Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two Party System,” opens with a chapter headed: “2008: Why America is Ready for a Third Party Candidate.”
After all of this breathless expectation, and with less than six months to go before the election, there’s little or no prospect of a serious third party effort (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.
After Tuesday’s big win for Barack Obama in the North Carolina Primary, it’s obvious that the Illinois Senator and John McCain will win their respective parties’ nominations and that strong campaigns by both men will leave very little room for fringe appeals.
With Michael Bloomberg and Ron Paul both ruling out minor party runs, the remaining odd-ball candidates stand no chance of generating significant popular support. The list of current and potential contenders has a depressing “round-up-the-usual-suspects” feel to it, with retreads or no-names like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Bob Barr, Wayne Allyn Root, Mike Gravel, Chuck Baldwin and even Allen Keyes throwing their clown hats into the third-party circus ring (though Dr. Keyes already suffered the ultimate indignity of losing his bid for the nomination of the Constitution Party—a mighty political juggernaut that drew an imposing 00.2% of the vote last time around).
Despite assertions that voters had lost faith in both major parties, primaries drew huge, enthusiastic turnouts (particularly for the Democrats, it must be admitted) while Republicans attracted new voters and unexpected energy from the surprisingly dynamic campaign by Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Contrary to the supposition of seething discontent with our political institutions, there’s no indication of mass desertion from the major parties toward apathy (quite the contrary) or to fringe groups. Polls indicate a close race and potential see-saw struggle between McCain and Obama, two figures who both seem to satisfy the famous public yearning for change.
Though Republicans will try to identify the Democratic nominee as an old-fashioned militant leftist in slick new packaging, his rhetoric about unity, his distinctive biography and bi-racial background work together to give Obama an air of freshness that has obviously inspired millions. And while Democrats will attempt to smear the Republican contender as “John McSame” who’s running to give the country a “third term of Bush,” McCain’s feisty maverick image, anti-establishment tone, and well-advertised differences with the current President (particularly over run-away spending, the environment and management of the war) make this year’s Republican ticket look dramatically different from the last five nominees (Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush and Bush).
Both parties, in other words, look like they’ve undergone a makeover, allowing citizens to vote for change without deserting the two-party system. These intra-party alterations help to explain why Lou Dobbs’ promised “Independents Day” never materialized.
Even among young voters, the one group most likely to support radical change in the system, there’s no evidence of surging identification as “independents.” This morning (May 6), USA Today ran an article entitle “Young Voters Poised to Be an Election Force.” It showed a paltry 8% of youthful voters (19-29) who identified as “independents” – a figure absolutely identical to the percentage who saw themselves that way in 2004. While the Gallup Poll that provided the background for the article showed sharply rising support for Democrats (from 50% to 62%) among the young voters, it also indicated that a clear plurality (41%) still saw themselves as “moderate” (compared to 32% liberal and 26% conservative). This prevalence of “moderate” swing voters helps explain why McCain remains competitive even in this millennial age group, despite their disproportionate affiliation as Democrats.
The Harris Poll also shows an historical decline in independent identification. The highest numbers for this preference (31% to 28%) came in the dark years between 178 and 1982. More recent results show less interest in looking past the two major parties, with the answer to “what do you usually consider yourself” yielding less than 24% independents every year since 2000.
Of course, nothing’s certain in love or politics, but there’s scant expectation at this point that a new fringe party candidate will emerge to become a “game changer” (to use Hillary’s phrase) for 2008, or to spark an explosion of independent identification.
Yes, Americans do want change, and hope, and cheaper gas, and fewer casualties among our troops, and lower taxes, and a more wins for the struggling teams in the American League Central Division.
But they also seem to understand that the best way – the only way – to actually alter policies and reform government is to work within, not outside, the two great parties that have served the nation reasonably well for the last 150 years.