Whither A Third Party?
by Chris Bowers, Mon Apr 25, 2005 at 01:10:55 PM EDT
Joe Trippi, a principal architect of Howard Dean's breakthrough Internet strategy in the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, is one of many analysts who believe that may soon change. The Internet, he says, could ignite a serious third-party presidential bid in 2008.
"This is a very disruptive technology," says Trippi. "And it is going to be very destabilizing to the political establishment of both parties."
The Internet could allow an independent candidate to more easily identify an audience and financial base, just as it has allowed blogs like the liberal Daily Kos or conservative InstaPundit to find a community of like-minded readers. More precisely, the Internet has allowed readers to find those blogs. And because the audience mostly finds the product, rather than the other way around, the cost of entering the market is radically reduced.
Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively. "Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he says.
It might not be quite that simple. But the two parties are pursuing strategies that create an opening in the center of the electorate, even as the Internet makes it easier for a new competitor to fill it.This is clearly based on the transaction cost theories of economist Ronald Coase's, which Everett Elrich used in 2003 to boldly predict that a third-party Presidential candidate will win by 2040. Simply put, the lower the cost of information collection, the smaller the necessary size of an organization. So, since the Internet makes information gathering than any pervious medium, it also makes it possible for a smaller political organization than either the Democratic or Republican parties to collect the necessary information to win the Presidency.
Anyway, that is the theory. There are some other major hurdles to a serious third party challenge, however. First among them is that right now the country isn't exactly too high on third parties, even when compared to recent years. A Pew poll from October 15-19, 2003 shows this trend:
2003 2000 1998 1996 1994 Agree 46 52 46 58 53 Disagree 44 42 47 37 43Even theoretical support for the existence of the major third party drop more than 20% from 1995 to 2003. A second major problem for a third-party candidate is electoral math. A third party candidate would have no conceivable chance to win the Presidency in the House of Representatives, so s/he would need to take 270 electoral votes outright. Even worse for a third party, they would actually have to win a noticeably higher percentage of the popular vote than either a Democrat or a Republican to accomplish this.
Let's assume the best possible scenario for a third party candidate. The Democratic and the Republican candidate are dead even. Further, the third party candidate draws equally from both potential Democratic voters and potential Republican voters. Now, combining the partisan index with the non-partisan index (the tendency of states to support third party candidates), I have developed projected electoral results under four different national popular vote results for the third-party candidate.
Third Party Receives 28.5% nationwide:
D: 280, R: 264, I: 4
Under this scenario, despite coming within only seven points of both the Democratic and the Republican candidate, the third party candidate receives only 4 electoral votes, and the Democratic nominee squeaks out a victory. Why is this the case? Basically, because the states that are most favorable to third party candidates, such as Alaska, are heavily, heavily Republican. It is too much for the third-party candidate to overcome.
Third Party Receives 31.0% nationwide:
D: 249, R: 247, I: 42
It is not until the third party candidate managed to rise to 31% that s/he is able to even throw the election to the House or Representatives. Further, even though s/he only lost the election by 3.5% in the popular vote, both the Democratic and the Republican nominees defeat him or her by more than 200 votes in the Electoral College. This is basically because third-party candidates have no real electoral base. The strongest third party state in the country, Alaska, only tilts in favor of third parties by 9.2 points. The second strongest, Maine, only titls in favor of third parties by 7.6 points. By contrast, 183 electoral votes tilt in favor of Republicans by more than 8.0 points, and 183 electoral votes tilt in favor of Democrats by more than 9.0 points. In other words, the third party base is scattered.
Third Party Receives 33.5% nationwide, winning the popular vote:
R: 234, D: 197, I: 107
Under this scenario, where the third party candidate wins the popular vote, s/he still gets blasted in the Electoral College. Still, enough damage will have been done to probably cause all hell to break loose in the country. Also, observers will not that while most of the strongest third party states are also red states, most of the first states that start to break for the third party candidate are blue states. This is primarily because Democratic safe states tend to have a partisan index of around 9-13, while Republican safe states tend to have a partisan index of around 14-23. Both are safe for the purpose of a close election. Their's are safe generally even in the case of a huge wipeout.
Third Party Receives 36.0% nationwide, winning Electoral College
I: 300, R: 173, D: 65
(Are these maps reminding you of the movie Outbreak yet?) Finally, at 36% nationwide, a 4% victory over both parties, is the third party candidate projected to win the Electoral Vote. Even then, it would be a squeaker, with narrow victories in most of the big states. The Democratic candidate is all but shut out, despite finishing even with the Republican candidate in the popular vote. Notice how almost the entire south stays with the Republican candidate despite this defeat. In fact, the third party candidate would need to win by 10-15% before the south finally starts to crack. Not only is it safe Republican territory, the south is by far the worst region for third parties nationwide. In fact, each of the four Western holdouts would fall to the third party candidate before any other Southern state.
So, even in the best case scenario, a third-party candidate would need to win nationwide by four points in order to win the election. If either Democrats or Republicans were to surge out of their deadlock, that would require an even larger third-party victory. If the third party candidate were to draw more heavily from one party than the other, again they would need to improve on their national popular vote margin.
So yes, while information is becoming cheaper, third parties still face enormous obstacles in terms of electoral math and weakening desire for a third party nationwide. Personally, I think 2040 is an extremely optimistic projection.
Update: In case you were wondering, Alabama just beats out Mississippi as the final state to fall tot he third party candidate. the candidate would need 43.3% of the vote to take MS, and 43.5% to take Alabama. DC finally falls at 52.5% of the vote.