Despite all the logical and historical arguments against third party campaigns, insurgent candidates say they’re compelled to run to give the people a "real choice" when major parties become indistinguishable.
Ignoring the increasingly profound ideological gulf between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy, economics and social issues, minor party activists dismiss these old political organizations as "Tweedledum and Tweedle-dumber," or "Republicrats and Demicans" – power hungry hacks who serve the same corporate masters and only pretend to disagree. Former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace ran his entire 1968 campaign (as standard-bearer for the hastily assembled "American Independent Party") based on the slogan that "there’s not a dime’s worth of difference" between his two opponents, Nixon and Humphrey, claiming they both kowtowed to the same "pointy-headed intellectuals."
In retrospect, any comparison of the careers, character and ideology of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey reveals that even in that pre-inflation era, the value of their differences amounted to more than ten cents. But aside from the substance of Wallace’s complaint, the impact of his relatively successful backlash-to-Civil Rights campaign (he won 13.5% of the vote and carried five Southern states) shows the futile nature of the third party strategy. The next time out the Democrats nominated ultra-liberal George McGovern, now underlining their big differences with Nixon by moving further away from, not closer to, Wallace’s right wing, blue collar positions. By that time the Governor himself had rejoined his old party and enjoyed considerable success in Democratic primaries in ‘72, before a bullet from a would-be assassin cut short his campaign. In any event, Wallace remained a Democrat (and returned to the governorship), even swallowing his segregationist principles to endorse Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Other "give ‘em a choice" campaigns produced similarly negligible long-term results. "Outsider" Ralph Nader claimed in 2000 that he could see scant difference between insiders Bush and Gore, and so he drew a crucial 2.7% of the electorate. Four years later, Republican Bush and Democrat Kerry utterly ignored Nader’s issues while each drawing millions more votes than their parties had won four years before, but Nader himself got less than one-sixth the ballots he claimed in 2000.
This year, with four different minor party contenders begging for money and attention to make national races, the situation has become more embarrassing than usual. Each of these worthies (Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader on the left, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party and Bob Barr of the Libertarians on the right) insists that McCain and Obama are so similar that the people need another choice. But the Republican and Democratic nominees have actually diverged sharply on just about everything -- Iraq policy, negotiations with Iran, protecting the Bush tax cuts, federal spending, earmarks, government takeover of healthcare, windfall profit taxes, tax simplification and flatter taxes, abortion, gun rights, gay marriage, oil drilling off the coast, nuclear power, choice in education, defending radio from the fairness doctrine, surveillance of terrorist suspects, the Patriot Act, you name it. On each of these issues McCain and Obama pointedly disagree. In fact, they contrast with one another far more dramatically than the lefty candidates (Nader and McKinney) disagree with one another, or the purportedly right wing candidates (Barr and Baldwin) split on the issues. Both of the Killer B's claim that they must run to offer some meaningful choice not provided by McCain or Obama, but if you're Bob Barr (heaven forbid!) is it really so necessary to offer an alternative to Rev. Baldwin?
Comparing the fringe candidates to one another explodes their oft-repeated claims that they run to provide choice and underlines their deepest similarities: none of them stands a chance of carrying even a single state and they're all motivated by self-righteous narcissism rather than some high-minded commitment to the issues.
If major party candidates do tend to sound similar themes in the last weeks before an election it’s because they’re competing for the same moderate, centrist swing voters who end up deciding every close race. These confused, timid and uncertain souls who end up deciding at the last minute usually get to pick the new president, as unpleasant as that reality may sound. Third party "choice" candidates can’t magically mobilize mass support by positioning themselves outside the political mainstream. Contenders with any chance of victory tend to concentrate on the mushy middle not because their corporate puppet masters order them to do so, but because that's where they can fish most effectively for available votes. Even rare candidates with strong, solid ideological commitments (Ronald Reagan is the best example) campaign as mainstreamers and consensus builders because, very simply, there's no other way to win.
In fact, many recent third party movements have criticized Republicans and Democrats not because they’re too similar, but because they’re too different – too polarizing, partisan and extreme. "Middle of the Road" independent contenders like John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in ’92 and ’96 made no attempt to push the parties to the left or the right, but rather schemed to attract the incurably undecided, confused and independent voters who waffle and dither, somewhere between donkey and elephant. Dreams of running various above-the-fray, vaguely post-partisan figures (like Colin Powell or Mike Bloomberg or Chuck Hagel) persistently animate minor party activists who don’t hope to give voters a new choice, but instead want to help them avoid any choices at all by offering ill-defined, split-the-difference candidates.
The apparent and appalling contradictions in popular pleas for a new national party --– pleas that simultaneously attack the big parties as too close and too far apart – expose the essential silliness of the fringe candidate compulsion.