Third parties, first ideas

By Tom Lamberti on July 10, 2008

As we approach the 2008 U.S. Election, we see many familiar signs. Now that Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have just about clinched the nomination of their parties, they will be looking to sure up their core supporters, as well as try and appeal to the independent voters who will ultimately decide who the next president of the United States will be. Yet, the election is about more than just right-wing vs. left-wing and Republican vs. Democrat. Many third party candidates will also contest the election and, if ideas from their platforms are popular with enough voters, they might just make it onto the next president’s agenda!

In the United States, there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution. Indeed, when America was founded there were no political parties. In his farewell address in 1796, President George Washington argued that Americans should never organize political parties because he believed they would be too divisive for the nation, which was still in its experimental stages of democracy. Yet, by the early 1800s parties were beginning to form as a result of the divergent interests that existed naturally in American society.

America's “winner take all” system and various state laws, as well as the fact that the media is usually more focused on the two major parties, may hinder the election of third party candidates, but it does not prevent their ideas from becoming popular with the American electorate. The most successful third party in the United States, and to date the only one that has ever elected a president, was the Republican Party. The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s as an anti-slavery third party when the two biggest parties at the time were the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. By 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln would be elected president.

In terms of money and partisanship, it would be harder for this to happen today. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would have much to gain by allowing any kind of third party to seriously challenge their control on power. A potential third party candidate would need to have a great deal of money and be running on an issue that could capture the emotions of millions of Americans. However, this does not mean that America is not a vibrant liberal democracy. Rather, while many third party candidates realize they cannot win power, they do realize their platforms can greatly influence the American electoral process. Third party candidate Ross Perot received 20 million votes in the 1992 presidential election. Not only did this prevent the winner of the election, Democrat Bill Clinton, from receiving a majority of the vote, it also ensured that both parties would pay attention to the ideas that Perot brought to the table, such as deficit reduction, which became popular during Clinton’s term. Both congressional Democrats in 1993 and later Congressional Republicans in 1997 worked with President Clinton on deficit reduction and spending cuts, which was popular with much of the American public.

Additionally, third party candidates can play a spoiler role. This was most recently seen in the 2000 election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader drained enough support from Gore, especially in key states like Florida, to swing the election for Bush. Disaffected Republicans and Democrats defend their decision to vote for third parties because while they probably would not ultimately want the other party in power, they are at least temporarily happy with punishing their party for not paying attention to the issues that matter most to them.

The most successful example of a third party candidate in recent history would be former wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura was the Reform Party candidate in 1998 and defeated both Republican candidate Norm Coleman and Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey III. Ventura went on to be one of the most popular governors in the state’s history. This shows that third party candidates, who put a great deal of money and effort into their campaigns, even in ones that are not expected to win, can be successful.

Thus, third parties and their candidates can be very influential in shaping American public policy even if they do not actually elect candidates. If enough Americans are enamoured by issues that these candidates endorse and they begin to drain enough support away from the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats will take notice. While it is unlikely that we will see a massive shift away from the Republicans and the Democrats in the future, it is important that we take note of the issues that third parties focus on and see how voters react to them. If enough voters respond to these ideas, you can bet Republicans and Democrats will take notice.


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