Deck re­mains stacked against third par­ties

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

De­spite the vast ide­o­log­i­cal land­scapes and po­lit­i­cal free­doms that set the United States apart from much of world, the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion has been, like so many other Amer­i­can elec­tions of the past 150 years, ul­ti­mately a two-party con­test.

While the names of an ar­ray of third-party can­di­dates ap­peared on bal­lots across the coun­try on Nov. 6, it’s been two decades since any­one not wed­ded to the Repub­li­can or Demo­cratic par­ties has made any­thing more than a sym­bolic run for the White House or drawn more than a frac­tion of the vote. But in close elec­tions, those frac­tions have of­ten proved to be the dif­fer­ence.

Bil­lion­aire Ross Perot won 19 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote as an in­de­pen­dent in 1992 and 8 per­cent in 1996 — the two strong­est third­party per­for­mances since for­mer Alabama Gov. Ge­orge Wal­lace took five Deep South states in 1968 with his hard-line pro-seg­re­ga­tion cam­paign.

John An­der­son of Illi­nois grabbed 6 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote in 1980 as an in­de­pen­dent, but, like Mr. Perot, failed to carry a sin­gle state.

This year’s third-party can­di­dates were spread across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum — Rocky An­der­son of the Jus­tice Party, Vir­gil H. Goode Jr. of the Con­sti­tu­tion Party, Gary E. John­son of the Lib­er­tar­ian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party — but po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts said the race was stacked against them from the start.

“The two par­ties start out with the priv­i­lege of bal­lot ac­cess, gov­ern­ment-run pri­maries and, more re­cently, gov­ern­ment fund­ing for their pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns,” said David Boaz, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the lib­er­tar­ian Cato In­sti­tute.

Two-party con­trol is so sys­tem­ized that “an aw­ful lot of Amer­i­cans think that a third party is some­how un-Amer­i­can or un­con­sti­tu­tional,” said Mr. Boaz.

“It’s not true,” he added. “But I do think a lot of peo­ple think it.”

John Baugh­man, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Bates Col­lege in Maine, where in­de­pen­dent An­gus King pulled off a rare U.S. Se­nate win last week, says an­other fac­tor has to do with the “psy­chol­ogy of vot­ers.”

“Vot­ers sim­ply have a hard time think­ing be­yond the two par­ties they’re fa­mil­iar with,” said Mr. Baugh­man. “A voter lack­ing much in­for­ma­tion about the can­di­dates is of­ten com­fort­able mak­ing a vote choice sim­ply based on their party af­fil­i­a­tion, but if it’s a can­di­date out­side their party af­fil­i­a­tion, mak­ing that choice is even harder.”

If a third-party can­di­date has a win­ning is­sue, mean­while, it’s com­mon for one of the ma­jor par­ties to co-opt it. Many think that was the case af­ter Mr. Perot’s 1992 bid, when his fo­cus on deficits helped pro­pel Pres­i­dent Clin­ton and Congress to sev­eral bal­anced-bud­get deals that put the gov­ern­ment in the black.

An­other fac­tor fa­vor­ing the two-party sys­tem is the U.S. con­sti­tu­tional struc­ture, un­der which the pres­i­dent is cho­sen by the Elec­toral Col­lege, rather than by the party in power or an al­liance of smaller par­ties — as is of­ten the case in par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies.

“We’ve got win­ner-take-all elec­tions, as op­posed to par­lia­men­tary elec­tions like those in Eng­land or, say, Is­rael,” ob­served Ron Sch­midt, who teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of South­ern Maine. “The most log­i­cal thing to do is to pack as many sup­port­ers into one tent as you pos­si­bly can on Elec­tion Day, so just math­e­mat­i­cally, two re­ally big par­ties just makes more sense.”

Then, too, the ma­jor par­ties also guilt vot­ers into avoid­ing votes for third par­ties.

Michael Kazin, a po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, said the two ma­jor par­ties tell “the elec­torate, ‘We un­der­stand you have griev­ances, but it would be much more prac­ti­cal for you to join into our party. If you do it with a third party, it will only hurt us.”

“In some ways, par­ties are like com­pet­i­tive busi­nesses,” Mr. Kazin added. “Un­less they grow, they’re go­ing to be in deep, deep trou­ble, so they need to grow. That’s true of par­ties ev­ery­where, but it’s es­pe­cially true in the two-party sys­tem.”

Mr. John­son, the Lib­er­tar­ian nom­i­nee, blames the me­dia for his lack of trac­tion.

“I polled at 6 per­cent in Ohio, but with all the talk about Ohio, do you hear my name six times ev­ery 46 times you hear Obama’s name? Ab­so­lutely not,” said Mr. John­son, a for­mer two-term Repub­li­can gover­nor of New Mex­ico. “Man, it’s a real phe­nom­e­non that the deck is stacked against the third party.”

That third-party can­di­dates go un­no­ticed by the press and rarely take more than a frac­tion of the vote, how­ever, does not make them ir­rel­e­vant.

To the con­trary, said Henry Olsen, who heads the Na­tional Re­search Ini­tia­tive at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “Fringe can­di­dates can af­fect the out­come of an elec­tion.”

“They can be de­ci­sive in a lot of ways, of­ten in ways that don’t nec­es­sar­ily show up in how well the can­di­dates do, but rather where they do,” said Mr. Olsen, who sug­gested Ge­orge W. Bush may not have be­come pres­i­dent in 2000 were it not for Green Party can­di­date Ralph Nader.

Mr. Nader was “in­con­se­quen­tial na­tion­ally, but be­cause of our elec­toral sys­tem, he cost [Al] Gore Florida, and hence cost him the elec­tion,” Mr. Olsen said.


Not able to get in the game: Lib­er­tar­ian Party can­di­date Gary John­son

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