Overdue For A Third Party?

In the last week of August, on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen, two prominent Democratic pollsters, declared the United States in the midst of a “pre-revolutionary movement.”  Referencing a number of polls and research depicting widespread disgust with the current political state of affairs, Caddell and Schoen predicted a third political party would emerge in 2012.  Caddell and Schoen noted third parties had emerged during similar periods of “economic distress and political alienation,” such as the independent John Anderson and Ross Perot bids in 1980 and 1992, respectively.  For good measure, Caddell and Schoen commented the distress and alienation of those periods were “nowhere as severe as they are today.”  Interestingly, the two omitted the modern era’s other famous third party candidate, George Wallace, who ran in 1968, another infamous annus horribilis.  Reviewed in the aggregate, these three bids each occurred twelve years apart.  If modern independent bids are subject to a twelve year cycle, a third party is not only conceivable in 2012, but it’s also overdue by eight years.  The 2004 election was not a tranquil election, taking place as it did amidst a controversial war and raw appeals by the two parties to their respective bases, so why didn’t a third party emerge in accordance with this ostensible timetable?  More importantly, will a third party indeed emerge in the 2012 election?  Revisiting these three prior elections will help provide clues.

From 1968 to 1992, Choosing Between Goldwaterites and McGovernites

George Wallace famously declared there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats," but that's probably because he didn't recognize the ideological divide that was emerging between the two political parties.

In the 1964 election, conservative insurgents gained control of the Republican Party and nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who, despite ardent support of civil rights, felt compelled to vote against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, primarily because of his deeply held libertarian philosophy.  Incumbent President Lyndon Johnson had little difficulty painting Goldwater as an extremist and swept to re-election in a landslide.  Despite the historic loss, the Republican Party became, and has remained, the principal political vehicle for American conservatives.

In 1968, the Republican Party, still reeling from the debacle in 1964, nominated former Vice-President Richard Nixon, more moderate than Goldwater but conservative enough given his staunch anti-communism.  With Johnson declining to run again, the Democratic Party nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.  He was a stalwart advocate of the administration's Great Society and civil rights initiatives, but Humphrey's nomination (made possible only by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination) enraged anti-war elements.  Wallace, the Democratic pro-segregation governor of Alabama, entered the race as an independent, hoping to prevent Nixon or Humphrey from winning an electoral vote majority.  If he succeeded, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives.  If this occurred, he might have a chance to determine who would win, preferably whichever nominee would accommodate him and his supporters' opposition to civil rights.  On Election Day, Wallace received just over 13 percent and the electoral votes of five Southern states.  Wallace’s tally reduced Nixon’s popular vote margin to less than 1 percent, but Nixon ended up winning a majority in the Electoral College.  Wallace may have failed to deny either major party nominee an electoral vote majority, but his candidacy marked a key transition in the American voters’ ideological realignment.

In 1972, the liberal insurgents thwarted in 1968 finally secured control of the Democratic Party and nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern.  While he was the top choice of the party's liberal base, incumbent President Richard Nixon had an easy time depicting McGovern as too radical and, like Johnson, swept to re-election in a historic landslide.  Nonetheless, the Democratic Party became and remained, just as the Republicans in 1964, the primary political instrument of American liberalism going forward.

Wallace's denunciation would have been true if he had said it in 1960, but not after 1972.  Since the 1964-1972 period, the Republican and Democratic parties have been the traditional homes for conservatives and liberals, respectively.  Furthermore, the divergence produced what American political scientist Byron Shafer aptly labeled “cross-cutting majorities” in the electorate, because voter expectations for the opposing branches of government resulted in votes for opposing parties.  Since the presidency is the locus of authority on national security affairs and Congress has jurisdiction over budgetary matters, after 1968, Republican conservatives came to dominate presidential elections while Democratic liberals established a near permanent majority in the House of Representatives.  Between 1968 and 1992, American voters essentially voted Goldwaterites to the presidency and McGovernites to Congress.

As such, John Anderson's independent run in 1980 was an anomaly in the same way that the election's Democratic incumbent was an exception to the Republican lock on the presidency.

After 1972, to achieve unified control of the presidency and Congress, a political party would have to field a presidential candidate with a conservative approach to foreign policy (and social matters) and congressional candidates favoring liberal economic policies.  Such a task was understandably easier for the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, especially when the party is just coming off a historic defeat.  In 1976, Democratic nominee James Carter succeeded by doing just that – running as a Southern moderate attractive enough to former Wallace supporters, yet sufficiently liberal to win over the base.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Carter, a self-proclaimed "outsider" (with only four years of experience in elective office), was woefully unprepared for the presidency.  He never developed what should have been a productive relationship with a Democratic Congress and he foundered in the face of economic and foreign crises.  Leading up to the 1980 election, his weakness drew a rare primary challenge in the form of Edward M. Kennedy, and two general election contenders, Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party nominee, and Republican Congressman John Anderson, a fiscal conservative (but social liberal) who ran as an independent.

Anderson had hoped to capitalize on the disunity within the Democratic Party and widespread apprehension over Reagan's strident conservatism.  Anderson polled well at the campaign's outset -- 25% in summer of 1980 -- but could not build the momentum necessary to remain on par with the major parties' candidates.  More pointedly, Reagan proved a strong campaigner and earned voters' confidence by soundly dispatching Anderson and Carter in successive televised debates.  In the end, Anderson's run was a quixotic one; voters remained split in their preferences and restored a Republican presidency and Democratic Congress that would remain in place for another twelve years.

In 1992, another feisty southerner asserted there wasn't much difference between the Republicans and Democrats.  Like Wallace, he probably didn't recognize his modicum of success in the polls was merely an indicator of changing fortunes for the still ideologically divergent parties.

Perot Helps Sever the Gordian Knot of a Republican Presidency and Democratic Congress

Within the Republican Party, President George H.W. Bush, never a doctrinaire “Goldwaterite,” had to cope with two major conservative revolts.  After reneging on his 1988 campaign promise (and a fundamental tenet of conservative orthodoxy) to not raise taxes, Bush had to overcome a rebellion in the House Republican conference led by Rep. Newt Gingrich, the party's whip and a conservative firebrand.  After finally securing the budget deal, Bush had to contend with a primary challenge from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who rallied conservatives dissatisfied with Bush's handling of the economy and his call for an American-led “new world order”.  Just like Carter, Bush’s weakness attracted two general election contenders, William Clinton, the Democratic Party nominee, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

Unlike Wallace, Perot's ambitions were more forthright.  Unlike Anderson, they were more attainable.  Perot wanted to win the presidency outright and possessed the means to do so independently.  Furthermore, Perot was more centrist and a far better campaigner.  His message focused on balanced budgets and problem solving, which resonated with a public frustrated by partisan gridlock and an economic downturn.  Moreover, his unconventional approach to campaigning endeared him to disaffected voters.  By mid-summer 1992, Perot was leading in national polls and in major electoral states.  Unfortunately, his withdrawal and re-entry into the race fatally undermined his candidacy, and on election day, he polled only 18.9 percent.  Perot's vote was the second highest tally earned by an independent candidate and denied Clinton, the eventual victor, a majority in the popular vote.  Clinton only received a plurality, but he interpreted the combined portion of the vote received by him and Perot – 61.9 percent – as a mandate for change.  

Regardless of the interpretation, the Republican lock on the presidency was seemingly broken.

At first glance, Clinton appeared to have succeeded in the same way Carter had -- by providing an appealing and electable Southern moderate face acceptable to the party's liberal base.   Moreover, he was far more experienced and highly regarded for his political acumen and policy expertise.  

However, Clinton did misinterpret the election returns -- the votes were cast in opposition to Bush and not for the traditional brand of Democratic liberalism.  His disastrous effort to establish universal health care and his inability to define a coherent foreign policy in the wake of the Cold War's end further infuriated voters, who did not wait until the next presidential election to vent their frustration.

In the very next election, the 1994 congressional mid-terms, voters ousted the Democratic majorities in Congress, installing Republican majorities in the Senate and House.  In the latter body, it would be the first time in forty years.  After the 1994 elections, Republicans were reasonably optimistic they would capture the presidency as well.  Nonetheless, in 1996, voters re-elected the Democratic President and the Republican Congress.


By 1991, the nation had elected a Republican to the presidency for five out of the past six elections and had just re-elected a Democratic House for the eighteenth consecutive time.  When the aforementioned Shafer described the “cross-cutting majority” phenomenon in the same year, a major realignment seemed remote.  

However, Shafer did outline a set of conditions that would allow for such a shift to occur.  Shafer wrote "the key to any long-run reversals lies in a changing international order, in rising cultural tensions, and in growing economic dislocation."  

Unbeknownst to him, events would indeed transpire over the next year and a half to satisfy these conditions.  By the 1992 election, three major events – the end of the Cold War, the riots in Los Angeles, and the sharp recession of 1991 – would all contribute to the radically changed political landscape that would emerge in 1996.

The end of the Cold War diminished the importance of having a vigilant conservative anti-communist in the presidency.  Similarly, the Los Angeles riots and the recession undercut the appeal of low tax, laissez faire approaches.  The result was the collapse of the voting majority in favor of Republican conservative presidents.  Bush, despite riding high with 91 percent approval ratings after the smashing victory in the Persian Gulf War, did not stand a chance without significant ideological re-positioning.  Clinton, promising reforms favorable to the middle class and successfully communicating his ability to “feel your pain,” offered the right alternative.

By the same token, the end of the Cold War did not mean voters would tolerate drift amidst the “unipolar moment.”  Whatever the successor to the containment doctrine would be, the public expected the president to identify it.  The Clinton Administration's mismanagement of crises in Haiti, Russia, Somalia, and Rwanda only reinforced long-held perceptions of Democratic ineptitude in foreign affairs.  Similarly, congressional priorities in the wake of the Los Angeles riots and the recession – nationalization of health care, gays in the military – even further soured voters.  A Democratic Congress, led by the unspectacular Majority Leader George Mitchell and Speaker Thomas Foley and embodied by the likes of big government liberal dinosaurs such as Dan Rostenkowski, was similarly doomed.  Gingrich and his fellow Republicans, promising balanced budgets, less spending, lower taxes, and welfare reform, offered an unmatchable alternative.

Unless another round of changes occurred in the conditions named by Shafer, Democratic liberals would be dominating presidential elections for some time just as Republican conservatives would enjoy a long majority in Congress.  After 1994, American voters were poised to vote for Goldwaterites to Congress and for McGovernites to the presidency.

As before, if a political party wanted unified control of the presidency and Congress, it would have to field a presidential candidate with a coherent approach to foreign policy and a readiness to use the government purse on behalf of the economy and congressional candidates favoring conservative economic policies.  This time, the task was easier for the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, especially coming off a frustrating defeat.  In 2000, Republican nominee George W. Bush succeeded by doing just that; running as a "compassionate conservative" attractive to former Perot supporters, yet sufficiently conservative to win over the base.

Well, he succeeded somewhat.

Nader Ruins It For Third Partiers

Unlike Carter who was the exception to the Republican lock on the presidency, Bush, the would-be exception to a Democratic lock on the presidency, did not win both a popular and electoral vote majority.  Bush won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Albert Gore.  Equally important was the fact that neither nominee received a majority of the popular vote -- Gore won 48.4 percent to Bush's 47.9 percent.  Both nominees failed because Green Party candidate Ralph Nader secured 2.7 percent, a paltry amount in comparison to Wallace, Anderson, and Perot, but decisive nonetheless.  This was especially true in Florida where Nader (and four other third party candidates) received vote totals greater than the 537 vote margin recorded for Bush over Gore.

While a number of factors and circumstances could have tipped the election in any direction, the central lesson learned by all participants -- the nominees, the parties, and the voters -- is that every single vote counts.  Independent and third party candidates might be able to capitalize on economic distress and political alienation and the presidency may be won only through the convoluted Constitutional mechanics of the Electoral College.  However, comprehensive political power could only be attained by marshaling millions of voters via the two major political parties.

What does this mean in terms of the 2004 and 2012 elections?

Bush could have relived Carter’s experience had it not been for another major event satisfying one of Shafer's condition for a realignment in voter preferences.  

With the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Bush became a wartime president and the office again became the locus of national security matters. As a result, voter preferences switched back to Republican conservatives.  Bush achieved historically high approval ratings and received the Republican majorities in the Senate and House in the 2002 congressional mid-term elections.

Hard-line Democratic voters never accepted the 2000 results -- and more vehemently denounced the approval given by the Democratic-led Senate to the Bush Administration's 2002 request for authority to invade Iraq just before the congressional mid-term elections.  They resolved to commit whatever was necessary to defeating Bush's re-election bid.

At the same time, the rise of online social networks finally impacted the nature of American politics, namely in terms of voter mobilization and fundraising.  

Instead of another medium for candidates to advertise their platforms, online media evolved into vehicles for supporters to self-mobilize and recruit like-minded individuals.  Furthermore, greater regularity in the use of online payment services, facilitated again by references from personal contacts, provided candidates with easy access to dollars only available to those with prodigious fundraisers and bundlers.

Liberal online groups, which originated in opposition to President Clinton's impeachment in 1998, resurfaced in support of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's long-shot bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.  Dean, an unabashed liberal, vaulted to frontrunner status on the basis of his antiwar platform and an enormous outpouring of support (and campaign funding) generated via online networks.  Dean, though, ended up losing to the eventual party nominee, and the more electable candidate, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Despite Dean's self-implosion shortly thereafter, online enthusiasts remained active in support of Kerry and organized Democratic voters across the country for races at all levels.  Faced with such determination, the Bush campaign machine was equally aggressive in organizing and mobilizing its base supporters.  

In a contest to be won by turning out the base, Ralph Nader's follow up bid for the presidency was generally ignored.

On election day 2004, Bush received very narrow popular and electoral vote majorities over Kerry, but majorities nonetheless.  Ralph Nader received less than one-half of 1 percent.  Voters, with the 2000 results fresh in their mind, were not going to "waste" their vote on a long-shot third party candidacy.

While Nader's 2000 bid diminished the utility of third party presidential runs, the 2004 election experience demonstrated to voters the potential of capturing power by self-organizing online, especially to those most ideologically committed.  Overall turnout in 2004 increased by 19.6 million voters and each party’s base realized, if they kept up the pressure, then political success could be achieved if they could ensure the nominee was more reflective of and more responsive to them.

Who Needs A Third Party When You Capture One of the Two Major Ones?

This phenomenon manifested itself during the 2006 congressional mid-term elections when online liberal activists targeted conservative Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman.  Seeking to punish Lieberman for his support of Bush Administration counter-terrorism policies, the aforementioned liberal “Netroots” mobilized in support of his primary opponent, Ned Lamont.  Lieberman lost the party nomination to Lamont in the primary vote, a rare occurrence.  Thereafter, Lieberman ran as an independent candidate in the general election and won re-election by a sizable margin, with the help of Republican and independent voters.

While Lieberman remained in the Senate, online liberal activism was critical to overall successes achieved by the Democratic Party in that year's elections.  

After twelve years of Republican domination, the Democratic Party returned to power in both houses of the Congress.  Two years later, Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama easily dispatched Republican nominee John McCain, winning the largest popular majority in twenty years and capturing long-time Republican states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana.  

In successive elections, the Democratic Party had wholly ousted the Republican Party, which had harbored visions of an enduring majority only four years earlier.

At the time, the comprehensive Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 seemed to herald an extended period for American liberalism, even the speed with Republican fortunes changed should have left liberals cautious.  Why such volatility in voting did result in support for independent candidates or a third party was unclear.  However, in the wake of the historic Republican victories in the 2010 congressional mid-term elections, the reason finally becomes clear.

Central to Republican successes in 2010 was the emergence of the "tea party," grassroots organizations that arose organically in opposition first to the Obama Administration's $1 trillion stimulus bill, and then later, its health care bill.

Akin to the Netroots, Tea Partiers targeted Republican officeholders who were insufficiently conservative.  In 2010, three incumbent Republican Senators targeted by the Tea Party failed to be renominated. The last time such a high number of incumbent Senators failed to be renominated was in 1968 and 1980. Furthermore, numerous establishment-endorsed contenders failed to win the nomination, losing to Tea Party-backed favorites.  

Between the 2004 and 2010 elections, the number and proportion of House freshmen rose every consecutive session, from 39 and 9 percent to 91 and 21 percent, respectively.  The latter 2010 figures constitute the highest number and proportion of freshmen since 1964, second only to 1992, when the subsequent Congress featured 109 freshman, or 25 percent of the membership.  When 2002 is included, the period entails five consecutive sessions of increasing number and proportion of House freshman.  The last time five such sessions occurred was between 1966 and 1974.  

Subsequent to the experience of the 2000 election, where the value of every single vote was dramatically demonstrated, and growing awareness that online communities can be powerful tools for political mobilization, voters no longer have to wait for a third party or independent candidate to register their displeasure with the two political parties.  

Instead of responding to major events, the agitation of long-shot political gadflies, or even “economic distress and political alienation,” voters merely have to seek out fellow partisans, organize online, and mobilize more than the opposition in order to serve up a “thumpin’”or a “shellackin’.”

Even the creation of a “fourth political party,” as suggested by Caddell and Schoen’s op-ed, is possible.  Furthermore, if online activists seize the opportunity to enact a “reform trifecta” -- end gerrymandering, simplifying ballot access, and rationalizing campaign finance -- then voters would no longer be limited to two political parties.  The question would not be whether a third party emerges, but whether four, five, or six credible contenders emerge.

The last presidential election of the pre-partisan era, that of 1824, featured five major statesmen in American history:
  1. John Quincy Adams, a former Secretary of State and the eventual president
  2. Andrew Jackson, a former general, territorial governor, and future two-term president
  3. Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser” and one of the “immortal trio”, which included Daniel Webster and;
  4. John C. Calhoun, a former Secretary of State and War and future Vice-President, and
  5. William H. Crawford, a former Secretary of War and the Treasury.  

Consider that when evaluating the incumbent and his would be opponent.

  1. Boller Jr., Paul F., Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush
  2. Dionne, E.J., Why Americans Hate Politics: The Death of the Democratic Process
  3. Shafer, Byron E., The End of Realignment?: Interpreting American Electoral Eras

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