So why hasn’t there been a serious attempt to start a third party since Perot? Every big-name politician who has looked at the idea has come to the same conclusion: The institutional barriers to creating a third party are too high. The first and most discouraging obstacle is that America’s ballot laws are a mishmash of arcane procedures that were written by the two parties to keep third parties out of the system. “The biggest problem that I faced back in 1980,” says Anderson, “was simply the question of ballot access. How do you get a new party on the ballot? You can’t start a new party and expect it to take wing and soar if it can’t even get on the ballot. I at one time had lawsuits going in about nine different federal courts. We spent somewhere between $2 million and $3 million paying lawyers to knock down restrictive ballot-access laws.” Eventually, Anderson made it onto all 50 state ballots, but his campaign turned into one for ballot access rather than president.
Today’s maze of ballot laws has its roots in the early thirties, when fears of communism encouraged states to make it difficult for third parties to qualify. In some states, a large percentage of registered voters must sign a party’s ballot petition (in California you need 153,000 valid signatures). In some states the petition circulators must be local residents (Nader was kicked off the Ohio ballot for using out-of-staters). Some states require that petitions be circulated by congressional district. West Virginia once demanded that “magisterial districts” be used. To be safe, a campaign must collect one and a half times the number of names required. Signatures can be struck in some states if the person voted in a party primary. In other states, the circulator of the petition must be a registered voter. Until 1986, Texas required every signatory to know their voter-registration I.D. “The Republican Party was founded on July 6 of 1854,” says Richard Winger, a Californian libertarian who has made the arcana of ballot-access laws his life’s work. “It went on to win a plurality in the House in that election. That couldn’t happen today.”
Running 50 separate ballot-access campaigns with varying deadlines and booby-trapped rules requires a great deal of money. In 2008, a third-party candidate would need some 700,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballots in all 50 states. To be safe, he would want to collect well over a million. And that’s before spending any money on ads, polling, and the rest of a campaign’s costs. “You need between $70 million and $100 million,” says Russell Verney, Perot’s 1996 manager. “Either personal wealth or contributions.”
If a third-party candidate does get on the ballot and raises enough money, one major goal remains: getting into the presidential debates. The debate commission is heavily rigged toward the Democrats and Republicans. Its main criterion for accepting a third-party candidate is evidence of widespread support reflected in polls. There is a chicken-and-egg problem to gaining this legitimacy. The most successful third-party candidates are the ones who convince voters that they have a chance of winning—in other words, the ones who successfully rebut the two major candidates’ arguments that a vote for a third choice will be wasted. The debates—high-profile moments when all three candidates share the same stage—can create that credibility.
That litany of hardships was what any politician heard from advisers when contemplating a third-party run. No wonder so few of them took the plunge. But then came the Internet—and Howard Dean’s campaign.
The Dean campaign proved many things, but its most enduring legacy may be that it gave us a glimpse of the beginning of the end of the two-party system. First, he showed the next budding Ross Perot how to manage a 50-state ballot-access project easily and cost-efficiently. It is not widely understood, but candidates running in the presidential primaries of the two major parties also must qualify for the ballot of every state they want to contest. Dean was the only insurgent Democratic-primary candidate in history to qualify in all 50 states, a stunning organizational achievement. Using a ballot-access function of the campaign’s Website, Deaniacs in every state had downloadable petitions and details about the rules for their state. Goals were tracked in real time. “Both parties have set up nominating and ballot hurdles, so an insurgency can’t happen,” says Joe Trippi, Dean’s first campaign manager and now an evangelist for a third party. “We blew through that in 2003.”
The second hurdle—fund-raising—also has a technological solution. Dean proved a message candidate could work outside any established infrastructure and raise massive amounts of money. After Perot, the assumption was that only a self-financed candidate could mount a credible third-party challenge. Dean exploded that conventional wisdom.