Third Party Politics


There has been a lot of talk lately about third party candidates and whether or not they should be allowed to appear in the presidential debates.  The debate organizers came up with a criteria for what a “major” party candidate would be.  The criteria they came up with are pretty simple, the party has to be on enough state ballots that the candidate could theoretically reach the 270 electoral vote threshold and they have to be polling at 15% in several national polls.  No third party candidate is going to meet these criteria this year.

Of course the supporters of these candidates are crying foul and complaining that that the Ds and Rs have rigged the system against their ideologically pure candidates and parties.  The system is certainly rigged, but not in any direct conspiratorial way.

Imagine if you wanted to, say, compete against Wal-Mart and Target.  Is the system going to look rigged to you?  Of course it is!  And sometimes it really is.  Lots of municipalities will be giving tax breaks, infrastructure improvements and all kinds of goodies to get a new Wal-Mart store.  You ain’t gonna get bupkis.  Is is a conspiracy?  It probably is sometimes.  But overall people just want a known entity, one they already consider a winner.  So, yes you are going to have a heck of a time gaining traction on those two and complaining that the “system is rigged” is not going to help at all.

Does this mean that Wal-Mart and Target can’t be beat and will last forever?  Let’s ask Jeff Bezos what he might think about that.  Or let’s ask Sears and Penneys what happened to their market share.  Market leaders can be taken down, but complaining about the system is not going to do it.

While there may be historical reasons that we have two parties rather than three or four, the current dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties is pretty simple.  It is the same as Wal-Mart and Target, they are pretty darn good at what they do.

The two major parties are represented in pretty much every county in the country.  They have tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to knock on doors, make phone calls and attend meetings in every nook and cranny of the country.  They are able to run candidates in pretty much every congressional district and every Senate race.   In most states they can run a slate of candidates from dog catcher to governor.  And finally, they have people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is and fund these operations.

So, this year when maybe 10% of voters are willing to tell pollsters, “I hate those guys, I am voting for Jill or Gary.”  This does not make them a political party.  It may be true that: “Americans have never been closer to rebellion against the political establishment. Millions are fed up with the sold-out Democratic and Republican parties, and looking for a new politics with integrity, values, and vision. This isn’t just a feeling in the air; national polls show that a large majority of Americans agree that the establishment parties are failing us, and that a new major party is needed,” as the Green Party of Wisconsin website says.  But wanting and needing a new party is not the same as actually having one.

The Green Party of Wisconsin “supported” four local candidates according to their website.  They have no congressional candidates on this year’s ballot.  Their governing committee consists of 2 people per congressional district, which means they need 16 people to fill out — they only have eight.  No candidates and not enough people to even fill out a committee.  This is not a “political party.”

The Libertarians are actually better, but not much.  They also would like 16 people on their own governing committee and can only find eight.  They do have seven candidates running for office, one for Senate, three for congress and three for the state legislature.  Two of those candidates are college students.  Better than the Greens, but again, this is not really a political party.  Just because you have some mops and brooms at your country store, nobody is going to confuse you with Wal-Mart.

And even if you are right that people want “authentic goods” from “local merchants” that does not mean that you are going to beat Wal-Mart at its game.   Jeff Bezos is going about beating Wal-Mart.  Micro-breweries are going after the big guys and winning.  Taking down the established big guys can be done, and there are many methods for doing it.

But right now, the third parties are not doing it, it is all just wishful thinking and slogans.

If I ran the presidential debates, I would change the criteria.  Yes, the part about being on the ballot in enough states to get 270, but also having candidates in 15% of the congressional and Senate races.  Neither the Greens nor Libertarians meet this criteria.

Political parties run candidates for office.  It’s what they do.  If you want to talk about political philosophy and policy recommendations, then you are a think tank.

Neither the Greens nor the Libertarians run candidates for office in anything approaching significant numbers.  Until they do, they should not be in the presidential debates.

If they want to be a political party they should do what political parties do, run candidates and get people to vote for them.  You can say all you want that Coke and Pepsi are unhealthy and disgusting and that the revolution has begun, but until my supermarket shelves are filled with something else other than Coke and Pepsi, and those new products are flying off the shelves, the revolution is not actually here.

Bernie Sanders showed that it is possible to build a political organization made up of small donors, generate enthusiasm and get lots of votes.  That could be the start of a real revolution.  The Libertarians and Greens have done absolutely nothing like that.  The could follow the Sanders model or they could make a new one, but so far, they haven’t really done anything other than run boutique candidates for president.  That is not a revolution and they are not actual political parties.

And until they have an actual political party — one that runs candidates in elections up and down the ticket and gets votes for those candidates, it is perfectly reasonable to exclude them from the presidential debates.



  1. drken says

    My brother votes Green. He likes to “feel good about his vote”. He likes it that the candidate for his party protested the XL pipeline in North Dakota. I wish my party’s candidate protested it too. But, I guess I’ll settle for the guy my party ran last election actually having the power to stop it.

    Dan Savage said it pretty well here.
    There’s a link at the bottom to the Green’s response and Dan’s rebuttal to that.

  2. Loren Petrich says

    There is a worse problem, one that does not exist for retail. In retail, one can start small and eventually become large, though for competing with the likes of WalMart and Target, one is best off serving some specialized market, one that WM and TG have little or no presence in. Or one can use a different delivery model, like Amazon did.

    But one cannot do that with our current voting system, except under unusual circumstances. It is: vote for one candidate and vote only once, often called first past the post or plurality voting. It is vulnerable to vote splitting, something that produces the spoiler effect. Candidates with similar voter appeal can split those voters’ votes, enabling a different candidate to win.

    Sociologist Maurisce Duverger noted some decades ago that this feature of FPTP tends to produce a two-party system (Duverger: The Electoral System). The solution? Get away from FPTP. Many nations have done so, some using proportional representation, and some using halfway systems like top-two runoff elections.

    Proportional representation is very good for starting small. One does not need very many votes to get seats in a PR-using legislature, even if one’s party won’t get very many. So why is proportional representation often treated as unthinkable for the US?

    • says

      I would agree that we could have a better system. But I certainly don’t condemn the existing parties for wanting to keep the status quo, that is, after all what people do. The folks at Target are not going to go around lowering the barriers to entry for retail stores.

      One thing I didn’t say in my post is that in our system, the ideas of 3rd parties end up getting incorporated into the two major parties. Certainly many Libertarian ideas have been taken into the Republican party. If you look at Sanders as being “third party,” many of his proposals have made it into the Democratic platform and campaigns.

      So, is it better to have actual third parties or have the two major parties morphing and changing over time? I am not sure there is a good answer to that, but either way, if third parties want to be successful here in the states, they have to run candidates and get people to vote for them.

  3. Jake Harban says

    The debate organizers came up with a criteria for what a “major” party candidate would be.

    What you’re neglecting to mention is that the “debate organizers” are the Democratic and Republican parties.

    So to make your analogy about competing with Walmart and Target more accurate, you’d have to mention that you’re not allowed to advertise your business unless you get permission from a board controlled by Walmart and Target.

    So, this year when maybe 10% of voters are willing to tell pollsters, “I hate those guys, I am voting for Jill or Gary.” This does not make them a political party.

    No, but it does make them candidates for office who are on the ballot. If 60% of voters are willing to actually vote for Stein, will she be denied the presidency on the grounds that she doesn’t meet your definition of a “political party?”

    Just because you have some mops and brooms at your country store, nobody is going to confuse you with Wal-Mart.

    But if they’re the best mops and brooms around, then people who want mops and brooms will buy them there and not at Walmart or Target.

    And the profits made on mops and brooms will allow you to expand your business (or will force Walmart and Target to actually earn mop and broom customers rather than relying on an oligopoly where consumers have no choice).

    And until they have an actual political party — one that runs candidates in elections up and down the ticket and gets votes for those candidates, it is perfectly reasonable to exclude them from the presidential debates.

    Bullshit. The Presidency is one office. The presidential debates specifically pertain to that office. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are running candidates for Senate, Congress, or any local races, so why is it “reasonable” to include them but to exclude Stein?

    • says

      Clinton and Trump are allowed in not because of themselves personally, but because they represent they two major parties and those parties do, in fact meet the criteria I set out.

      I would still hold to that criteria even if some third party candidate was polling 60%, yes. Mostly because I don’t believe that anyone can really poll at 60% without the support of a real political party behind them. I will predict that the actual polling for Stein and Johnson will fall into the low single digits on election day because they have no real mechanism to actually get people to the polls.

      • alkaloid says

        “Clinton and Trump are allowed in not because of themselves personally, but because they represent they two major parties and those parties do, in fact meet the criteria I set out.”

        But that’s only because those parties set the criteria in order to protect themselves from competition and supine judges let them get away with it by denying court challenges from other candidates.

        In fact, those criteria change in order to specifically raise the bar against other candidates. After Perot got so much support in 1992 the polling level required to even be part of the ‘official’ presidential debates was raised. This is arbitrary and self-serving.

  4. says

    It’s pretty much settled wisdom in political science that the US electoral system is more-or-less guaranteed to converge on two parties. (Question for UK readers: how do the Lib-Dems even exist?) Consequently, coalition-forming in the U.S. happens *within* parties, rather than *between* them, as in multi-party parliamentary systems.

    Personally, I prefer the multi-party model because it offers greater transparency — we can get a clearer picture of *why* people identify with a particular party, and coalitions like “xenophobic nationalists + big business interests” are apparent as what they are. We can also get a clearer picture of the relative balance of power within a coalition. If the xenophobic nationalist party is supplying 65% of the voting power in a xenophobe-business coalition, that means something.

    Regarding how such a change might be brought about, I agree 100%: voting for “third party” candidates in a two-party system is guaranteed to fail, and it’s a bit silly to expect the “winners” in such a system to voluntarily dismantle it.

    If we want to change the system, we need to…you know…change the system. And, at the risk of repeating myself: the feasible target is state constitutions. If you want a multi-party proportional balloting system, pick a state and amend its constitution accordingly. It’s not a trivial undertaking, but it’s really not that hard.

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