Friday, July 27, 2012

Q Day 7: Third Parties?

Two questions about third parties. Another anonymous one:
...Mike Bloomberg wanting to run for president and going so far as to consult well connected political consultants to guage a run...what are they telling him that keeps him from running? IF he really wanted to run, wouldn't this cycle have been best? A slow recovery hurting the incumbent and a weak challenger should have been a wide-open window, right?
They're probably telling him the Iron Law of American Politics that NYC Mayor is a dead-end job. Beyond that, it's correct that this was a (fairly) good cycle for a third party candidate to run "successfully", but that means getting to 10% or maybe 20%, not winning. So those most likely to try under those circumstances are (1) people with real issue commitments who want to get some policies on the national agenda; (2) people with egos that will be satisfied by getting on TV a lot, maybe even the debates, and then getting crushed in November; (3) people stupid enough or egotistical enough to believe they'll win despite the strong evidence that they won't. Presumably, Bloomberg is not in any of those categories. Or, he just doesn't want the job.

Chris asks:
Do you think the current situation in California (i.e., an uncompetitive state Republican party and a Democratic party that's not particularly unified or effective) could set the stage for a meaningful third party presence (e.g., due to an intra-Dem schism)? If not, what structural factors are preventing it? And what's preventing the California Republicans from moderating themselves? Is California enacting the Emerging Democratic Majority scenario?
The traditional problem for third parties is "Duverger's Law", which is more of an empirical observation and logical conclusion than a "Law," but says that first-past-the-post elections will produce a two-party system because third party votes will switch to the big party that has the best chance of winning (since there's no reward for anything except winning. I don't see any reason to expect that to fail in the long run, but I wouldn't be shocked to see a serious third-party runs for major offices, and wouldn't be shocked if one or more succeeds. I don't really agree that the Democrats are weak, though; but what you want for all of this is Seth Masket's book, which is excellent.

If the demographics of the US eventually look like California now, I'd expect Republicans to adapt. But there are a lot of ways that could happen.


  1. California is now more complicated. We now have a top-two primary system, meaning that the general election is a contest between whichever two people get the most votes in the primary, regardless of their parties. R vs D, R vs R, D vs D...doesn't matter.

    Third parties might think this would help them in districts that are overwhelmingly D or R, but it won't. Turnout in a primary is heavily partisan. So, only major partisans will get nominated.

    Proponents argued that this will lead to moderation. Their argument is that Dems in a given R/R district, screwed over because they couldn't nominate a candidate of their own, will actually vote for the more moderate of the two candidates. The idea is that party primaries forced candidates to care only about the base, because the general election was a cakewalk.

    This is actually really quite wrong.

    Now the only election of consequence is the primary. Which is even more dominated by partisans than is the general. And, since primaries are all about a turnout game, you have to pander to the base even more to get them to show up.

    Take CD 31 (please!). This district voted 7 points in favor of Brown, 16 in favor of Obama. It's a Latino Democratic district. However, with no interesting contests to bring them out to the polls in June(!), two Republicans got the two tickets to the general. One of them is an incumbent from a small portion of the district, Gary Miller, of the 100% ACU lifetime score Gary Millers. Regular primary system would have given this Democratic district a Democratic representative. Now, a relatively small minority in the district is electing the MC.

    I cannot express in words how awful I find the top-two primary system.

    1. N=1

      Let's try and push up N a little further before making definitive conclusions.

  2. From my 15-year venture into trying to create an effective third party, i have to say that Duverger's Law does operate with Newtonian effectiveness, and that the law of gravity may be the best metaphor for how the process operates in the body politic.

  3. Invoking Duverger's Law sort of begs the question. If you assume you're going to have a two-party system at the state level, why does it have to be two parties that strongly resemble the national Republicans and Democrats? I suspect there are strong institutional reasons why this is the case, but national Republicanism is completely uncompetetive in California and the state party can't seem to find a way to moderate itself. It would make more sense for the two state parties to represent the center and the left, splitting off the factions of the Democratic party and picking up, respectively, disaffected moderate Republicans and Greens. You could argue that the rightward faction just described is exactly where the state Republicans ought to be, but that's not where they are headed.

  4. Duverger's Law doesn't really seem to work that well. Firstly, there's no rule that state level politics have to replicate national ones - look at Canada, where each state has its own, slightly different, more or less two party system. It's also not really true that all first past the post systems produce two party system. Britain has had the Liberal Democrats as a kind of third party hanger on for years, and also has regional parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru (plus a totally different party system in Northern Ireland). At the federal level, Canada was operating for quite a while as a five party system, and still has more than two parties.

    You maybe have a general rule that within any given contest, only two parties matter, but there's no rule that those two parties must be the same throughout a country.


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