A Long Shot That Matters
For a third political party -- Reform, Libertarian, or Green -- victory won't come by winning. It will come by finishing second.
By Robert David Sullivan
APRIL 3, 2000: Seven months to go before the presidential election, and we're already well into the "Is that all there is?" phase of the campaign. Not only have the nominees for the two major parties been selected, but several possibilities for a third, independent choice (including Donald Trump and Jesse Ventura) have already been laughed out of consideration. John McCain, beaten in the Republican primaries, has declined to risk further humiliation with an independent candidacy. That leaves us with a couple of retreads trying to reach disaffected voters: Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party (unless Ross Perot grabs the nomination for himself again) and Ralph Nader, the repeat nominee of the Green Party. As for the major candidates, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, they seem ready to wage a campaign based on character issues rather than political philosophy. The only real element of suspense is whether we'll break the record for lowest voter turnout come November.
Not too long ago, there was reason to hope that the two-party system would become as obsolete as Ma Bell's telephone monopoly. In the 1992 presidential election, independent candidate Ross Perot, a semi-coherent egomaniac whom you wouldn't trust to walk your dog, managed to win 19 percent of the vote. Four years later, Perot ran again and got eight percent, a comedown but good enough to qualify his new Reform Party for federal matching funds and a guaranteed place on many states' ballots in 2000. Since Perot's strong 1992 showing, two states (Maine and Minnesota) have elected independent governors, and there have been scattered victories by the Green Party in local elections (mostly in coastal California). And only a few weeks ago, McCain's insurgent candidacy prompted record-high turnouts in several presidential primaries -- supporting the idea that a large bloc of independent voters is out there waiting for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.
Clearly, there's a demand for a strong new party, especially among younger voters and other traditionally low-turnout groups. But Perot's candidacies didn't go far enough toward breaking the Democratic-Republican monopoly. In order to survive, a new party must "shoot to kill" one of the two main parties and take its place in the two-candidate system. That's how the Republican Party established itself in the 19th century. It didn't aim for the middle between the pro-slavery Democrats and the wishy-washy Whigs; in taking a harder line against slavery, it pretty much left the Democrats alone while destroying the Whigs. The first Republican presidential candidate (in 1856) finished second to the Democrat, and by the next election the Whig party was extinct.
In those parts of the country, it really is pointless to vote in a congressional election. What possible difference could it make whether your congressman is elected with 80 percent or 85 percent of the vote, unless you want to give him bragging rights in the locker room of the House gym? After living almost my entire life in overwhelmingly Democratic districts, I've never voted for a Democratic congressional candidate, because I'd feel ridiculous doing it. It would be like signing a petition to keep my local Starbucks open. Neither one needs my support to stay in business.
I just can't take seriously any match between a Democrat and someone representing the party of Jesse Helms and Trent Lott. The latter might as well be running as the "Bring Back Smallpox" candidate for all the support he'll get in my district. But I would consider my vote carefully if I had to choose between the Democrat and a strong Reform candidate (perhaps better on campaign-finance laws and cutting wasteful spending), or the Democrat and a Green candidate (probably stronger on health care), or even the Democrat and a Libertarian (could be preferable on free-speech issues).
It's in just such states, where one of the two main parties is hugely unpopular, that a regional third party may be possible. New England, the only part of the country outside Arizona where John McCain beat George W. Bush among Republicans, may be the most fertile region for a party realignment. The national Republican party is so weak here (Bob Dole's best showing was 39 percent in New Hampshire) that a centrist or progressive party might be able to take its place. The same holds true for some of the Rocky Mountain states, except there the Democrats might be pushed out of the way. Other democracies follow this pattern -- notably Canada and Great Britain, where there are two strong parties at the national level but different sets of two strong parties in different regions. (In Canada, the Liberals and Conservatives compete nationwide, but in Quebec it's the Liberals and the Parti Québecois.) The regional parties have no chance of winning a national election, but they do influence the government though sizable blocs in Parliament.
This scenario wouldn't have been so far-fetched for Maine, where the election results were highly encouraging to third-party advocates. In the 1992 presidential election, Clinton got 39 percent of the Maine vote, and Perot edged out Bush by 316 votes, with both men getting 31 percent.
Two years later, Maine voters elected a third-party candidate for governor. The winner, Angus King, had successfully started his own energy-conservation business and was the perfect opposition to the Democrats. He attacked high taxes, over-regulation, and government spending, but he was a moderate on the environment and leaned to the left on social issues. In the 1994 election, King got 35 percent of the vote, the Democratic candidate got 34 percent, and the GOP candidate was far behind with 23 percent. Maine voters who didn't like the Democrats were getting used to the idea that they didn't have to vote Republican.
King didn't run as a Reform candidate. Even so, Perot should have begged the new governor to join his party. He should have bought TV spots praising King to the heavens: "Sure, I started things rolling. I might have dumped Grandma out of her wheelchair and put her cat in the thresher. But this guy actually got elected to something." But of course Perot couldn't stand the thought of someone else getting some attention, so he let King get away. And in the next gubernatorial election in Maine, King was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote, to the Democrat's 19 percent and the Republican's 12 percent. This was actually terrible news for third-party advocates, because it meant that King had become a middle-of-the-road consensus figure with no real opposition. If the result had been 49 percent to 29 percent to 12 percent, the marginalization of the Republicans might have been complete.
Jesse Ventura, too, could have marginalized one of the two major parties in his state if things had gone differently for him. By finishing second in 1998's Minnesota gubernatorial election, he and the Reform Party would have had a shot at displacing whichever party finished third and might have permanently realigned politics at the state level. As it is, the Democrats and Republicans, still embarrassed over losing to a professional wrestler, will probably unite to stamp out any chance of another independent's succeeding Ventura.
In contrast, there's the story of socialist Bernard Sanders in Vermont, who seems to have followed the early Republicans' path. He ran for Congress as an independent in 1988 and finished second to a moderate Republican. Two years later, he ran again as an independent, and the Democratic nominee was quickly dismissed as a fringe candidate. Sanders won, and Vermont got a congressman who wasn't beholden to the power structure (i.e., the major contributors) of either party. Still in Congress, he stands a good chance of getting a like-minded independent to succeed him.
This is a doomed strategy. It contributed to Perot's collapse between 1992 and 1996, and it will probably prevent Ventura from establishing a permanent party in Minnesota. Even if we change campaign-finance and ballot-access laws to help third parties, the United States still operates under a winner-take-all system. That is, a candidate can win an election even with a minority of the vote -- provided that the opposition is divided between several other candidates. One alternative is some kind of proportional-representation system, like the ones in Israel and Italy (if a party gets 30 percent of the vote, it gets 30 percent of the seats in Congress). But that's never going to happen here: who wants the government to collapse every other week the way it does in Israel and Italy? So it's true that voting for a third candidate in a close election is essentially throwing away your power to help choose the winner. Under freakish conditions, it's possible to have a genuine three-way race (the 1998 Minnesota election with Ventura was the closest thing to one at the state level in many years), but it's impossible for more than two parties to remain viable for the election after that.
If Buchanan really wants to help the Reform Party, he should spend a lot of time in Massachusetts this summer. Not that he has any chance of winning it in the fall -- Al Gore would have to put on a New York Yankees uniform, blow up the Citgo sign, and set fire to Julia Child in order to blow his lead in the Bay State. But with his populist economic views and an appeal to conservative Catholic voters, Buchanan has a small chance of finishing ahead of George W. Bush. In 1996, Bob Dole got only 28 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, and although Bush will certainly improve on Dole's showing nationally, he might have more trouble in a state where McCain whipped him in the primary.
In fact, all three minor parties with a real chance for growth -- Reform, Green, and Libertarian -- should concentrate on the handful of states where one of the two major parties is particularly weak. They should look at Clinton's six weakest states in 1996: Utah, Alaska (where the Green Party finished a distant second to the Republicans in a 1996 US Senate race), Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming. And they should study Bob Dole's weakest states: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York (at least New York City, where Dole got a pitiful 17 percent), Maine, Vermont, and Hawaii. The goal should be to finish second somewhere -- if not in a state, then in a congressional district or even a county -- and establish a beachhead for future elections.
Unfortunately, presidential candidates tend to get caught up in the fantasy of winning, or at least of competing on a level playing field, and they try to wage a national campaign -- spending most of their money to get on all 50 ballots, suing for inclusion in the debates, and hitting all the major media markets. That's good for the ego, but not so good for party-building. It may be naive to expect a candidate to think of anything other than his or her own election -- Ross Perot has certainly shown that he's no different than the Democrats and the Republicans in that respect. But what we need is an independent politician with enough nerve to run for president and enough brains to realize how long it will take to build a new party. Then maybe when Bush or Gore runs for re-election, we won't still be asking, "Is that all there is?"
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