Dean’s campaign not only suggested that the traditional obstacles to starting a third party are surmountable, but it also raised questions about the purpose of the two parties themselves. What assets, after all, do the Democratic and Republican parties bestow on a nominee? There was once a time when the parties served a policy role for the presidential candidate. The nominating convention was a time when delegates drew up a party platform for the candidate to run on. No more. Candidates routinely ignore the platform—in 1996, Bob Dole famously said he hadn’t read it—and run on their own issues.
What’s left? The other assets parties offer are a fund-raising infrastructure (e-mail lists, donor databases) and an organizational infrastructure (county chairs, precinct captains, local volunteers). But the parties no longer have a monopoly on these two networks. A charismatic candidate can build his own alternative fund-raising base overnight and collect an army of volunteers in a matter of weeks. In fact, with the rise of political groups known as 527s, which raise money (often from billionaires like George Soros), run ads, and turn out voters, the parties have already gone a long way toward outsourcing their core activities. The only assets controlled by the two parties that can’t be reproduced by an entrepreneurial independent are their distinctive brands, the value of which is in steep decline.
“You have these two parties where lots of people aren’t happy with either one of them,” says Trippi. “You’ve got this way for all those people to connect together behind a candidate who is third-party or an independent. I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. There’s no way we are going to be looking at a two-party system—or these two parties. My feeling is we’re sort of there already and it just takes one bold candidacy. Someone bolting one of the two major parties right now could make that party go the way of the Whigs.” Any takers?