Electoral Reform- Part 2: Are Third Parties the Answer?

For better or worse, the United States has a two-party system. Initially, we had George Washington and nothing else. There were obvious splits early in our history with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson being the most noticeable, but even there both were Federalists. It was the election of the populist Andrew Jackson that basically gave birth to the Democratic Party then, in 1856, the northern pro-abolitionist/pro-business Republican Party. The advantages of a two party system are obvious. Suppose, for example, given the choice of liberal or conservative, voters are 55% liberal and 45% conservative in a particular state. And let us suppose the Democrat appeals to the liberal and the Republican appeals to the conservative. We would expect the Democrat to win with about 55% of the vote. Now, if we introduce a third party candidate into the mix who largely agrees with the Democratic view but with certain differences and they get 15% of the vote because he “looks nicer” or whatever, then the Republican gets his 45%, the Democrat 40% and the third party member of the Good Lookers Party 15%. Does the winner accurately represent their constituency? Instead, they would actually represents a minority of his constituency. This is the greatest advantage of a two-party system- a clear dichotomous choice in candidates. Granted, there exists a continuum of ideology within any party. There can be conservative Democrats (say, from the south or midwest) just as there can be liberal Republicans (say, from New England or the Northwest). In reality, there is not a clear-cut dichotomy, but a continuum.

Third parties generally cannot survive at the national level except to the extent that they play the role of spoiler. At the more local levels, they may play a greater role. For example, prior to World War I, there were an estimated 600 mayors in the United States who were elected from the Socialist Party, a third party. Likewise, some Green Party or Libertarian Party candidates have won at the local levels recently.

The alternative, a multiparty system, appeals to our notions of absolute competition. That is, everyone should have access to the ballot or, at the very least, there should be an option to Republicans and Democrats. But, when we look at multiparty systems in other countries, we see two things. First, it is generally two major parties that dominate nevertheless at the top of the ticket and nationally. Second, where more than two parties dominate at the top and nationally, we see the formation of coalition governments where clear minority parties are given greater say and power than their numbers dictate, all in the name of coalition and compromise. In this latter case, we also see frequent “votes of confidence” and if failing that vote, reformation of governments and alignments within that government. In short, it creates more bedlam than anything that exists here in the United States. Can anyone imagine if, for example, George Bush failed a vote of confidence in 2006? In effect, we DO have votes of confidence and they are called midterm elections. The 2006 midterm was a vote of no confidence in George W. Bush and the result was an almost non-existent legislative agenda. Likewise, the 2010 midterms were a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the Democratic Party, except this time the pundits called it obstructionism and gridlock.

I believe that when analyzed without emotion, most would agree that the two party system in the United States works amazingly well. Most of the arguments in Congress are nothing like those in any parliament anywhere in the world. Simply on a comparative basis internationally, our government works better than those of other countries. It is why after an electoral loss, the losing party does its fair share of soul-searching and makes the necessary adjustments. It is also why this country has never had a violent overthrow of a government and our elections and the peaceful nature of the transition of government is the envy of the world.

It was in 1968 that a third party candidate last garnered any electoral votes when George Wallace managed 46 while pulling only 8.6% of the popular vote nationally. He managed to win five southern states, but three of them he won with less than 50% of the vote. Should that a President make? With a viable third party candidate, it is increasingly likely that the eventual winner will win with less than 50% of the popular vote nationally. In effect, we would then have to resort to a coalition government and greater gridlock while the President would appeal, most likely, only on a regional basis and not a national basis. Even in 1968, Nixon won 31 states, but only 16 of them with at least 50% of the vote while Humphrey won 8 of his 14 states without at least 50% of the popular vote.

In 1980, John Anderson pulled almost 7% of the national popular vote and no electoral votes. Reagan defeated Carter in an electoral vote landslide 489-49 votes, yet garnered slightly over 50% of the popular vote. The reason was the number of states where Reagan actually failed to reach that 50% consensus threshold on a state-by-state basis. Now, when you take out that third party candidate, such as in 1984, there is clear consensus for Reagan as he wins not only in an electoral vote landslide, but also in the popular vote. Ironically, Ross Perot in 1992 won not a single electoral vote, but pulled 18% of the popular vote. Of the 29 states Clinton won, he had a 50% majority in only ONE- his home state of Arkansas. Bush failed to hit 50% in any of the 21 states he won. However, the popular vote was only off by six percentage points as Clinton won with 43% of the popular vote nationally. In 1996, Perot’s percentage of the vote fell precipitously to 8% nationally, yet still Bill Clinton was a minority popular vote president with only 49% of the popular vote nationally. Hence, Clinton was not a consensus president in either election because of a third party candidate on the ballot.

Most of the criticism centers around the alleged barriers placed in the way of third parties in gaining access to the ballot. Most are dependent on performance in a previous election. For example, some states specify that if a third party pulled X% of the vote in the most recent statewide election- Governor, Senator, etc.- then they can get automatic access to the next general election. Even failing this test, many states allow a third party access provided they get a certain number of good signatures on a petition.

Regardless, most third party candidates are one-trick ponies that appeal to only one geographical area (Wallace in 1968) or policy area (Ross Perot and his debt/deficit platform). If the goal is to move parties to the center, then third parties play an opposite role. For example, if you have two somewhat centrist candidates running against a conservative, then that will be to the advantage of the conservative. Of course, we can insert the word “liberal” for “conservative” here and get the same results. Third party candidates are not the great panacea to break apparent gridlock. In fact, they only serve to weaken the mandate of the eventual winner.

Look at just the 2000 election in Florida. In the end, Bush won by about 500 votes. But, Nader took 97,000 votes and Pat Buchanan took another 17,000 votes. Nader, not the Supreme Court, cost Gore the election in Florida in 2000. We focus on Florida, but in New Hampshire, Gore lost to Bush by 7,000 votes, yet Nader had 22,000 votes and in New Mexico where the final tally was even less than in Florida at about 400 votes, Nader had 21,000 potential votes for Gore. The Left likes to point out that although Gore lost the electoral count, he won the popular vote. Indeed he did because he carried the high population states by huge amounts, but the electoral college is designed to defend against this very chain of events- a few big states dictating leadership upon the rest of the country. But the fact remains that in the absence of Ralph Nader, this election would have gone to Al Gore as he would have won Florida outright plus New Mexico and New Hampshire. His popular vote margin of victory would have been 3 million instead of less than 700,000.

Probably the worst case scenario in any presidential election would be for House to decide the winner, Lets take a look at 1968 again. In that year, Wallace got 46 electoral votes and Nixon won with 301 electoral votes. Suppose Wallace won Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida. In fact, he came very close to winning Tennessee and South Carolina. If so, Wallace would have pulled an additional 33 votes- not enough to even come close to winning, but certainly enough to deny Nixon the presidency outright (he would have had 268). In that scenario, a purely regional candidate would have had tremendous say in who the next President would be and that power would certainly not be in proportion to number of votes he received.

Furthermore, the two party system creates more political stability than chaos. Some have even speculated this helps create the necessary political environment for better economic growth. It should also be noted that despite the occasional glitches, the two party system actually pulls both major parties away from the extremes and closer to the political center. In 1996, Clinton and Dole ran basically on the same economic platform. The reason Perot did as well as he did that year- although clearly less than in 1992- was that he presented a choice versus the others. Yet, he still lost.

The final issue to be discussed is called fusion voting. Here, third parties cross-endorse major party candidates. Under state laws, these third parties generally have to reach a certain threshold of voters in a benchmark statewide race to get on the next ballot. A perfect example is the Working Families Party in New York which usually endorses/runs the Democratic candidate. In effect, the same name ends up on two lines on the ballot. But sometimes, this system backfires. Usually, there is no Working Families Party nominee, just a Democrat who solicits (sometimes monetarily) their endorsement and another slot on the ballot. Likewise, Republicans do the same with the Conservative Party endorsement. A perfect example is the 2010 gubernatorial election in New York.

In 2010, everyone knew that the Democratic candidate would be Andrew Cuomo and there was the assumption the Republican nominee would be Rick Lazio. However, millionaire Carl Palladino entered the race on the GOP side with backing from the Tea Party. Of course, Palladino refused the Conservative Party endorsement, but Lazio accepted it. However, in the primary, Palladino upset Lazio and became the Republican nominee. If this had not happened, there would have been no problem. It is interesting since Palladino was actually more conservative than Lazio, yet it was Lazio being endorsed by the Conservative Party. When Palladino became the GOP candidate, it created a three-way race between Palladino, Lazio and Cuomo. Under New York law, once on the ballot- as all three were- there are only three ways off- move out of state, die, or be nominated for a state supreme court justice. Realizing that there would be a split vote that would cost either Palladino or Lazio the election, Lazio became a supreme court nominee- a job he did not want, would not campaign for, and would ultimately lose. Once off the gubernatorial ballot, Palladino suddenly appears on the Conservative Party’s line on the ballot. In even congressional races in 2010, the presence of the Conservative Party candidate not also on the GOP ballot cost Republicans seats, or made their races more hairy than necessary.

A case from New York when a third party actually genuinely ran a candidate occurred in 1980 when the Liberal Party ran Jacob Javits. On the Republican side was Alfonse D’Amato and Elizabeth Holtzman on the Democratic side. Everything indicated that a Javits-D’Amato or a Holtzman-D’Amato head to head match would have ended in a D’Amato loss. The result was that the least popular choice among New York voters was elected Senator. Had a legitimate Conservative Party candidate run (instead of them endorsing D’Amato), then perhaps the conservative vote would have been split also and one of the more popular choices would have snuck into the Senate. But in that case, does anyone have electoral legitimacy with somewhere near 30% of a statewide vote as was the case with D’Amato?

In the end, third parties are not the answer, but a complicating factor. They do not solve the alleged problem. One suggestion once bandied about was the Tea Party becoming a legitimate third party. That would be a disastrous turn of events for the Republican Party. There is a reason the Tea Party element has found a home within the Republican Party. Their ideals more closely align with the GOP than the Democratic Party. By being more or less incorporated within an existing major party, they can actually have greater electoral power than if they ran a third party, independent candidate. The fact is that 90% of the electorate identifies with either of the major parties. Should the Tea Party become a stand alone third party, they would likely only play the role of spoiler and pull no more than perhaps 15% of the vote. That would only be to the advantage of the Democrats as they would slip through on a split conservative vote. In fact, their power within the existing party was shown greatly in the primaries in the 2010 midterms where their success rate at getting candidates nominated was greater than general election outcomes. Still, that is a success for the Tea Party since they steer the GOP back towards more conservative principles when they “go astray.”

Democrats portray the GOP as beholden to the Tea Party. But, that is the pot calling the kettle black. Today’s contingent of Democrats in the House are certainly more liberal than the Congress elected in 2006 or 2008. Part of that is because the conservative elements in that party were swept out of office. But, at some point, their ultra-liberalism will reach a threshold breaking point just as the GOP straying from conservative principles reached a breaking point resulting in the Tea Party.

In part 3, I will discuss two solutions which I consider bromide solutions- a balanced budget amendment and term limits as well as the line item veto.