Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When Third Parties Do Well

The news today about the third party joke "Americans Elect" is that, well, it's still a joke -- they have lots of ballot spots, but still no candidate.

John Avlon thinks that's too bad, but moreover thinks that Americans Elect is having trouble because they picked the wrong cycle:
Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the basic fact of this particular election cycle—when a president is running for reelection, it tends to be a referendum. Third-party candidacies do best when there is not an incumbent on the ballot or after an extended period of one-party rule with weak opposition.
Now, first of all, that's an (unmarked) change from the original column, which made the factual error of claiming that Ross Perot wasn't running against an incumbent in 1992 -- it was immediately caught by lots of people over the twitter machine this morning, with Steve Kornacki being the first one I saw. I don't have any problem with someone for making factual mistakes...I certainly make my share, and as long as you're willing to correct it when called on it, that's not a problem in my book.

However, the underlying point is wrong. The truth is that weak incumbent presidents create opportunities for third party candidates.

The strongest third party runs in the 20th century were Ross Perot in 1996, Perot in 1992, John Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, Robert La Follette in 1924 and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Five of six were against incumbents. If you go back to 1892, and the Populist campaign, make it six of seven. This makes the conclusion that they do best "when there is not an incumbent on the ballot" somewhat odd.

How about "after an extended period of one-party rule with weak opposition"? I'm not sure exactly what that means, but let's see. If we limit it to control of the presidency, the incumbent party had been in for one term in 1996, three in 1992, one in 1980, two in 1968, one in 1924, and four in 1912 (plus, just one in 1892). I'm not really seeing a pattern there, but where there is doesn't support Avlon.

It's more complicated if we include control of Congress as part of "one-party rule," but basically there's nothing there.

Or, to put it another way...which elections have not had an incumbent president or an extended period of one-party rule? If we consider the latter any time in which the incumbent party has won three or more terms in the White House, then we won't have much. I believe the only ones that fit are 1952 and 1908, neither of which produced a notable third party run. If we dial it back to two terms (and no incumbent on the ballot), we get 2008, 2000, 1988, 1968, 1960, 1952, 1928, 1920, and 1908 -- and that picks up Wallace in 1968, but one out of nine isn't a very good record (compared with five in the other 19 elections, if I'm counting correctly, from 1900 through 2004).

Again: third party opportunities are mostly created by unpopular presidents.

[Misspelling fixed]


  1. Also, George Wallace entered the presidential race before the incumbent LBJ dropped out. So really ALL the examples of significant third-party runs in the 20th century have been launched during incumbent elections. Nader is the only recent example to defy this rule, but since he got only 2% of the vote, he was not what anyone would normally consider a significant candidate; it was only the freakishly close election that gave him more importance than usual for a candidate with that little support.

  2. 20th century third party candidacies have been most successful when centered around a specific candidate's personality (TR, Perot, Wallace) instead of a strong third platform. This is why Americans Elect can't succeed without a big name.

    (The demise of the Bull Moose and Reform parties demonstrate how important that leader is to their success on the ballot.)

  3. Broken link ...

    The whole third-party thing is deeply mysterious to me. What exactly have the Lib-Dems, or their precursors, brought to the British political table?

  4. Americans Elect seems doomed to insignificance, but I also imagine it will stick around. It owes its existence to the pathological products of elite polarization: deluded 'centrists' and business-class elites who don't like Republicans, but whose deeper revulsion is the mere thought of becoming a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. Since there's no sign of the Republicans moderating yet, the demographic for Americans Elect seems likely to increase or remain steady in the next cycle or two.

  5. Yeah that is pretty bad. Personally I always feel a little satisfied when people who know nothing about politics attempt to show all us dummies who have done things like volunteer on campaigns or work in social moments how its done. Because they come from the business realm and thus are better than us. Then they fall flat on their faces. I especially love how all these AE people would criticize Obama for "not being able to do anything" in terms of passing stuff through congress but this geniuses can't even get people to vote on online polls (one of the lowest level of political involvement possible) which is a tad bit easier than passing a bill through congress let alone construct a viable political party from the ground up (something that happens once or twice a century or so in American politics.

  6. I think the third party thing has more problems than just that. A lot of the pro-third party advocacy starts with the idea that we need a third party because the two parties are too partisan; too idealogical; that there is a third, non-idealogical consensus political platform that can unite a large group of voters around popular and effective policy solutions. I mean, where do you start with all of the problems with that?? It's just so naive on so many levels. The idealogy of non-idealogy is sort of like the show about nothing. Politics is about ideology AND policy. Effective political systems channel ideology through pluraistic processes into democratic policy-making bodies. You can't remove ideology from politics- and why would you want to? The reason things don't get done in U.S. politics isn't some kind of rhetorical problem or lost national consensus; it's that our process is made so that small groups can stop progress and our elections (through campaign finance) give oversized influence to unscrupulous people who are willing to sell unpopular ideas with deceptive communication.

  7. @Rick: I do not know exactly what you mean by "brought to the table", but

    In their previous incarnation as the Liberals, the Lib Dems formed numerous governments. They have twice acted as kingmakers after close national elections, the second time by forming a formal coalition. They have also been part of governing coalitions in both Scotland and Wales. They have hundreds of local councillors, and control many councils either outright or in coalition.

    In addition, they act as a home for disgruntled members of the major political parties who are nevertheless alienated by the other. Without the existence of the Liberals, the SDP would have withered into nothing. In other words, what PF thinks is the problem with Americans Elect is actually one of its best things - it could potentially be a home for people who don't want to be Republicans any more, but don't want to be Democrats either (or vice-versa).

    1. Good points about LibDems. You describe well what a third party can do in a parliamentary system with a coalitional, multi-party culture (see also Germany). But in the US, I can't see it working this way. All AE has been touting is its silly presidential run. It's not building grassroots support for local and state electoral candidates who can one day run for national seats, attain a mini-party representation in Congress, and then have a notable presidential candidate.

      It seems like all those who are superficially drawn to AE -- be they wealthy backers or ordinary folk annoyed with the current state of Dems or the GOP -- could have greater influence by pushing inside one or the other party for the reforms/change in spirit that they seek. (Especially the wealthy backers: all they need to do is inundate several specific key Congresspeople with cash in informal exchange for those people backing certain 'good government' reforms that AE likes so much.)

      And the urge to create a third party would make more sense if Democrats weren't meeting Republican intransigence and shifting-to-the-right by, often enough, shifting rightward in turn, co-opting formerly moderate-Republican plans. Yet the Dems have generally been doing this. What space is AE filling, except a psychological one for people who can't bring themselves to throw their lot in with the party who shares more of their interests, within an entrenched 2-party system? Or alternatively, why not join someone like David Frum and Norman Ornstein in supporting the reforming of the Republican mindset within the Republican party?

    2. Weren't the Liberals once one of the two main British parties, until Labour relegated them to third-party status?

      Countries with proportional representation and a multi-party culture are a whole 'nother beast. But it would require a complete reboot of American political culture, presumably including a comprehensive rewrite of the Constitution, to get anything like that here.

    3. The Liberals were indeed one of the two main British parties up until 1916. However, their downfall was more self-inflicted than caused by Labour - they split into warring factions and never recovered.

  8. I have your Candidate, you self-absorbed TWITS who only want attention-- Independent Gary Johnson, the former Gov. of NM. A normal, honest person, not a rich asshole, or lying betrayer. He was a great governor to NM and the rarest of rare- a straight talking and thinking politition! If ever we needed a third party- it is NOW! Wake up and act people!


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