Because of the electorate’s anti-incumbent mood, talk of a third party has become all the rage. Peggy Noonan says that, “America may be ready for a new political party.” Howard Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, goes further and says, “America’s two political parties may not realize it yet, but in their current form they are nearing obsolescence.” There’s even a high profile group of Democrats (along with a few independents and RINOS) out there called Unity08 that’s trying to put together a Democrat/Republican combo ticket for 2008.
So, does that mean a real option to the two main parties is about to spring up? No, not at all. It has been roughly 150 years since a third party, the Republicans, metastasized into a power player in American politics at the expense of the hapless Whig party and we’re still waiting for a repetition of history. That’s because the obstacles to putting together a viable third party are practically insurmountable.
First of all, ask yourself, “What platform would this third party run on? What would its guiding philosophy be?” They’d have to come up with something other than, “We’re not Democrats and Republicans.” You don’t know what it would be? Well, don’t feel badly because nobody seems to have a lot of good ideas about the subject which is why we usually hear advocates of a third party simply advocating a “moderate platform.”
However, most “moderates” are either people who break from their respective parties on a few issues or those who just aren’t well informed enough about politics to have a coherent philosophy. So, if you put 10 moderates in a room, you could easily have half of them disagreeing on every major issue. That’s why just trying to build a political party around a “moderate” philosophy won’t work.
Moreover, let’s say a third party were able to somehow find an important issue on which it could better represent the public than the two main parties. What makes anyone believe that either the Democrats or Republicans wouldn’t simply “steal” the issue? There are no issues that one party or the other won’t usurp if it proves to be politically popular.
Setting all that aside, there are the practical issues. Both parties have enormous field operations in every state, legions of volunteers, the capacity to raise almost limitless amounts of money, and all the advantages of incumbency. Some people seem to believe that these advantages can simply be shrugged off because the Internet is growing more useful as a tool for fund raising and organization. However, reality check here, both the Democrats and the Republicans are using the Internet, too. That means structurally, a third party starts out in an enormous hole—and, as a general rule, it needs more money and a better organization than the two main parties to adequately introduce itself to the public and explain its positions.
As a matter of fact, just about the only way a third party can overcome the obstacles in its path, albeit usually temporary, is by running a candidate with high name recognition (and preferably deep pockets as well). However, even that strategy has seldom worked at the national level and it has never worked in a race for the presidency. Given that the men who’ve tried to become President as third-party candidates—and failed—include Teddy Roosevelt, former Vice President Henry Wallace, and billionaire businessman Ross Perot, it becomes clear that we’re talking about an extremely difficult and maybe even nearly impossible trick to pull off.
When you put all of this together, it seems obvious that third parties aren’t going to win much of anything. But unfortunately, they’re capable of doing a lot of damage even when they almost inevitably lose. Just consider what happens when someone votes for a third party. That person actually takes the time to get up, go to the voting booth, and then he casts a vote for a person that he knows has absolutely no chance to win.
But, what about the opportunity cost of that vote? In order to vote for a third party, he’s passing on the candidate closest to his views that actually has a chance to win, which makes it more likely that someone with diametrically opposing views will get into office. We’re talking about Green Party voters helping to put George W. Bush in the White House by voting for someone other than Al “Global warming is the most serious problem we are facing” Gore. We’re talking about, “who knows how many,” fiscal conservatives over the years losing tight races to big-government Democrats because so many small-government aficionados insisted on voting for some Libertarian wonk, whom the rest of the state wouldn’t have voted for if you put a gun to their heads. In other words, the only thing advocates of small parties ever accomplish, if they accomplish anything, is to help put the people who disagree with them the most in office. If the goal of third-party enthusiasts is supposed to be to change politics for the better, that would seem to be a rather perverse way of going about it.