Tuesday, October 5, 2010

President Thirdparty, No; Candidate Thirdparty -- Could Be

I like just about half of Nate Silver's pushback against the idea that a third party serious run for the presidency is improbable (roundup here from Brendan Nyhan; Silver doesn't take on the question of whether or not such an idea would be a good thing, just whether it's plausible).

I basically agree with Silver that it's not at all improbable that a "serious" third-party candidate could emerge in 2012.  I do think he overstates the chances that candidate would have of winning, however.  As Silver notes, serious third party campaigns are by no means unusual.  What I'd say is that the proper way to think about them is by dividing the conditions for such a candidacy into two parts, supply and demand.  Demand for a third party is easy to explain; while Silver has quite a few conditions, we could boil all of it down rapidly to one: demand for a third party candidacy is caused by unpopular presidents.  That links each of the postwar cases (1948, 1968, 1980, 1992) but one, the Perot echo candidacy in 1996.  If the president has a high approval rating, you're not going to get a strong third party run.  But it's also true that demand is not sufficient; you also need someone willing to do it who has sufficient credentials that she will get Treated Seriously by the press, at least for a while.  Perot got that treatment because he was rich; John Anderson in 1980 was Taken Seriously after he attracted a lot of attention in the GOP primaries.  Most likely, any sitting Governor or Senator would qualify.

So, if Barack Obama's approval ratings take a turn for the worse over the next year, I do think the conditions will be there for a third-party run, if someone decides to go for it.  I disagree that such a candidate would have a reasonable chance of winning; I don't think Ross Perot in 1992 ever had a reasonable chance of winning.  The trick here is to think about voters and party identification.  It is true that many voters do not think of themselves, and do not say that they are, party voters.  As John Sides never hesitates to remind us, however, most of those people actually do act like partisans.  Here's what basically happens.  If a president, such as Jimmy Carter 1980 or George H.W. Bush 1992, is unpopular, that means that there's going to be a large group of people who think of themselves as voting for the person, not the party, and who also don't want to vote for the incumbent.  What do they think of the out-party challenger?  Well, they're not explicit partisans, so they don't simply rally to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.  Indeed, there's probably an ongoing or just completed tough fight for the nomination on that side, so they've heard lots of negative things about the surviving candidate...last they heard, even a lot of Democrats don't seem to like Clinton (or Republicans, Reagan).  So you'll get a fair number who will say they will vote for a third party candidate, who at that point probably has the benefit of having avoided any negative publicity at all.  However, by the time the conventions come, the out-party suddenly seems, despite all (media) predictions to the contrary, to be unanimously enthusiastic about their candidate, who of course gets a multiday infomercial that even now is still broadcast pretty widely.  Moreover, the "independent" Republican is going to be watching Fox News (now shifting to a 2012 scenario) and hearing a lot of really good things about the GOP candidate, and some disturbing information about the third-party candidate, who suddenly looks a lot less new and shiny, and more like politics-as-usual.  Over on the other side, MSNBC hosts who may spend 2011 beating on Obama for deviations from the party line, leading some "independent" Dems to flirt with a third party candidate, will spend fall 2012 talking about how scary the GOP nominee is, and how Nader caused Iraq, and those independent Dems are going to float back to the Democratic president.  In our hypothetical, Obama is unpopular, so that requires another group -- people who normally vote Democratic but have sworn off Obama.   For them, it's probably easier to use the third-party candidate as a placeholder for a while, on their way to the actual taboo of voting for a Republican, just as Reagan Democrats did in 1980.

And that's without getting into a lot of the technical stuff, such as ballot access laws, or the advantages the established parties have in ready-to-go get-out-the-vote campaigns.  Essentially, there's just a lot of machinery in the political system designed to push people to the major parties at the end of the campaign, and that's what we should expect will happen at the end of the road, whatever things look like in March or July.


  1. I was thinking of posting a serious comment, but I decided instead to paraphrase The Princess Bride, which about sums up my attitude on the subject:

    "You'll never get elected on a third party!"

    "Nonsense! You're only saying that because no one ever has!"

  2. I think the "placeholder" theory you cite in the next-to-last paragraph is correct, which just adds to the inevitability of third-party candidates fading as Election Day nears. It's also true that if a center-right candidate can't muster up the votes to win the GOP nomination (by winning California, New York, and other primaries won by McCain in 2008), it's hard to imagine him or her putting together the infrastructure to topple the two-party system. And I don't think there's any room for a center-left independent with Obama in the White House.

  3. The spirit of this post seems applicable to the inevitable fall of Boise State's football team from national championship consideration. Boise State is the college football equivalent of a third party candidate; when the season started pundits far and wide felt that, if either Alabama or Ohio State lost even a game, it would be a colossal injustice for Boise to be left out of the championship.

    Then, last Saturday, Oregon put up 52 on 9th-ranked Stanford, and now the Ducks have jumped Boise (AP poll), and AFAIK no one outside of Idaho raised even an eyebrow.

    Third party candidates, whether Presidential or College Football, are romantic in large part due to their impossibility. Once said impossibility becomes impossible to ignore, the third-party candidate becomes quite easy to ignore.

  4. The main opening for a third-party candidate would seem to be if:

    (a) Obama becomes very unpopular, as the economy stagnates or falls into a double-dip, and his approval rating slides below 40 percent.

    (b) The GOP nominates a candidate totally unacceptable to swing voters (call him/her "Pal-grich.")

    The contrary example is Ronald Reagan, who seemed unacceptable to many in 1980, but at least he had more plausibility as a president than Palin has (he had, after all, been governor of the nation's largest state) and a vastly more appealing personality than Gingrich has.

    Plus Reagan had a much more positive public image than Pal-grich has. A May 1980 Gallup Poll showed Reagan with 71% favorable and 27% unfavorable.

  5. An April 1980 N.Y. Times poll showed Reagan with 41% favorable and 34% unfavorable.

  6. Kylopod,

    Now, if only we can go back in time and get GWB to watch that movie thirty or forty times...


    First of all, let's leave Newt out of it -- no one likes him, so how's he going to win the nomination? The question is whether Palin or someone like her could win a nomination without becoming very popular among Republican, who would then present a united front by at least mid-summer, which would be enough, IMO, to win back and support the 3rd party candidate was showing. I can imagine scenarios where that happens, but I'd call them unlikely at best. And even then, odds are that all it would do would be to re-elect Obama.

    That's for getting a 3rd party candidate elected (or at least having a serious shot at winning). Getting one into the 5-15% range really only takes, IMO, an unpopular incumbent plus the right 3rd party candidate and some luck.

  7. "on their way to the actual taboo of voting"

    Didn't you mean "on their way to overcoming the taboo of voting for a Republican"?

  8. Your focus here is whether a 3rd party candidate could actually win (or, as with Perot and Nader, affect the outcome of the election). Doesn't that leave aside the issue of the 3rd party affecting the 2 major parties?

    I agree, it would take something pretty spectacular to really change the 2-party system. It is an inextricable part of the winner-take-all, small-district system. TR was a force of nature and couldn't pull it off. However, 3rd parties, however transient, influence the priorities and rhetoric of the 2 main parties.

    Because most of our coalition-making takes place prior to general election (unlike a proportional representation system where a significant amount takes place afterward), the presence of a strong 3rd option moves parties. It may be more accurate to say we have a durable two-name system whereas the subgroups in each shift and change sides periodically.

    Aren't we essentially living through that now. Many hold that the Tea Party is just a re-branded conservative arm of the GOP and will eventually, if not already, totally subsumed under the GOP. However, many people do see it as a 3rd option - "I am not a Repub or a Dem, I am a Tea Party Patriot." And the rhetoric and policies (such as they are) that appeal to those voters have moved both the Repub and the Dems. Instead of the soul-searching and moderation that was supposedly going to take place in the GOP following 2008, we have a even more hard-right party than ever before because our supposed third party came out on that side of the issues.

    Even in places where there is a 3rd party (and 4th and 5th parties) that have electoral success, they don't run the place. They form a coalition with one of the 2 major parties (and there is almost always just 2 major parties) and the PM comes from the major party and a handful of ministers come from the 3rd party.

    Similarly, we have a Dem pres and among the equivalent secretaries we have had a range of ideologies that in a different system would constitute different parties -- and they were selected in part to keep different factions in the Democratic party happy. Similarly, under Bush, there were were neo-con, religious conservatives, libertarian, and even a few moderate appointments to have all of the party feel like they were represented in at least some way to keep them from rebelling and working against the pre-electoral coalition.

    I am all for moving away from the winner-take-all system and into a proportional representation system. I prefer the post-electoral coalition formation (I think it is a bit more transparent, more representative of the variety of perspectives, and more consensual by design). Maybe that is because I come from a swing district in swing state meaning that every election nearly half of the *voting* population's preferences are left unrepresented (believe me, when this state went red in the 2000s, we didn't send moderate representatives to Washington). And that totally leaves aside the issue of non-voters.


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