Sept. 22, 2010
THE THIRD-PARTY MIRAGE
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
The astonishing success of tea party candidates against Republican incumbents, coupled with widely perceived voter anger, has led once again to talk of a third-party movement. A recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of voters want a third party. Thanks to revolutionary changes in campaigning, such as the explosive growth of Internet fundraising and the use of social media outlets, some may think this is finally the year for the third-party movement to bloom.
Don’t believe it. Any possible third party has the same nonexistent chance of success as all the ones that went before.
This is not to say third parties and independent runs for office are unimportant. Ralph Nader almost certainly cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. And Ross Perot’s 1992 run, in which he garnered 19 percent of the vote, at least damaged President George Bush. But, like all the other third-party candidates, they were not a threat to actually win the race.
The real test of a third party would not be on the presidential level, it would be found in winning state and local offices. And it’s here that we can see the real failure of third parties in America.
Occasionally, a very-well-known independent will win a governor’s race — Alaska, Maine, Minnesota and Connecticut have all seen this in the last two decades — but these winners are not tied to a growing party. In fact, it is their independence from either party that makes them appealing, but they never grow a party around their success. These victories are usually based on a state-specific quirk, and the independent governor has little lasting impact on the political process.
On the federal level, we can starkly see the lack of success. Of the 535 members of Congress, only two can be called third-party or independent: Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — a socialist who runs with the complete acquiescence of the Democratic Party.
This year, there are two other serious independent candidates with a fighting chance to win office: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Florida’s Charlie Crist. Both fit the same pattern as Lieberman — incumbents or high-ranked political figures who were rejected by their parties in a primary campaign. None of these independents is looking to form a new movement. They are just trying to leverage their personal popularity into holding or capturing a seat.
There are a host of reasons for the failure of third parties. For example, just getting on the ballot in many states is difficult, requiring candidates to spend significant cash and effort simply to have the opportunity to run.
But a most serious problem is one that is ignored whenever people get excited about third parties.
The two parties have ideologies that serve a real function. Most voters don’t closely follow the political process and rely on the candidate’s party affiliation to let them know where the candidate is likely to stand on the most contentious issues — even if those issues aren’t a real part of the campaign.
To regularly win support, a third party would need a platform of positions on the mass of issues facing the country. But since third-party candidates must draw their support from disaffected voters from both major parties, any position on hot-button issues such as abortion or Social Security is sure to alienate some potential voters.
As a result, the initial support third-party candidates garner for a few exciting ideas — such as Perot’s stance against free trade — wanes as the candidate is forced to reveal stands on other controversial problems. Each stand pushes more voters back into the waiting arms of the Democratic or Republican parties. And by Election Day, the third-party candidate is reduced to a spoiler role.
The tea party movement and the increasing anger with the political process makes a third party look like an appealing option to many. But it is simply a mirage. No matter what the polls say, no serious third party is going to arise any time soon.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.
Does the Tea Party movement constitute a credible third party?November 2, 2010