But Is a Third Party Possible?

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The political world is rife with portents of the imminent appearance of a third party. Alienation from the two parties is peaking. Polarization has created an issues vacuum in the center. New Web-based organizational tools have made creating a party a simpler DIY project. In fact, for a third party to spring into action, just one sign is missing: a heartbeat.

The last vestiges of the Reform Party were stamped out in 2000. Ralph Nader rode the national Green Party into the ground. Jesse Ventura has exited the political stage. All the high-profile characters who flirted publicly with a third-party run in the past decade decided against it. Colin Powell, the great hope of 1996, passed up his chance. The maverick pols who dubbed themselves the Gang of Seven, including Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, and Lowell Weicker, never moved beyond discussing a third party via speakerphone. Howard Dean decided to take over the Democratic Party rather than start his own. The final patch of dirt seemed to have been thrown on the coffin this year when John McCain, the great hope for third-party dreamers, started sucking up to Jerry Falwell.

The constellation of third-party fantasists seems depressed. I called John Anderson, the man who won 6.6 percent as an independent in 1980. Now 84, he thinks the moment is right but doesn’t detect much action. “There is no clear clarion voice that I can point you to,” he told me. “I think we’re pretty much inured in the throes of the iron grip of the two-party system at the moment.” He wondered what became of the last third-party insurgent. “I don’t know what happened to Ross Perot,” he asked quizzically. “He just completely went underground. He’s still alive, but you don’t hear anything from him.”

Clay Mulford, Perot’s son-in-law, longtime adviser, and 1992 campaign manager, confirmed for me that Perot is indeed still alive. But Mulford sounded similarly discouraged. “What we have lost in America,” he says, “is the ability for things to bubble up from the body politic and give voice to things that aren’t being voiced by the major parties.”

The closest thing I could find to an effort to launch a new third force was a semi-regular meeting in Washington of a few burned-out consultants from the Ford and Carter campaigns. They are led by ex–Ford adviser Doug Bailey and are trying to think through the mechanics of how a new party could be launched. Bailey declined to discuss the venture with me, but one person familiar with it says it is tentatively called the Unity Party. “It’s a group of old Republican and Democratic consultants, none of whom are in the business anymore, people who are locked out or chose to opt out,” says the source. “To be honest, it’s like a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking beer.”

But the old guys drinking beer are onto something. They understand why third parties emerge. In the nineteenth century, third parties were single-issue creatures that grew up around great causes that the major parties were ignoring. Abolition, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of senators all started as third-party movements. The twentieth century was different. It has almost always taken a splashy candidate to light the fire of a third-party movement in the past hundred years—from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 to George Wallace in 1968 to Ross Perot in 1992. But even as third parties have changed from bottom-up to top-down endeavors—tracking the same candidate-centric trend as the major parties—they have thrived most often when the two parties allowed hot issues to be exploited. Political scientists call this “major-party failure,” moments in history when the Democrats and Republicans “neglect the concerns of significant blocs of voters, mismanage the economy, or nominate unqualified candidates,” according to the single best study on the subject, Third Parties in America.

Is there any doubt we are in the midst of major-party failure today? Whether it’s the once-again-relevant centrist issues championed by Perot (the exploding deficits, political reform), the great issues on the left waiting for a champion (universal health care, global warming), or the always festering anxieties of the nationalist right (immigration, isolationism), there is no shortage of ideas for a third-party candidate to seize.

But as important as issues have always been to starting a third party, there is another essential ingredient: political alienation. Americans today are as alienated from the major parties as they have ever been. Independents and third-party registrants are the fastest-growing bloc of voters. They made up 22 percent of the electorate in 2004—a new high. It seems obvious that Perot’s 1992 campaign—stoked by frustration with congressional scandals and a recession—coincided with a low point in political alienation. It didn’t. Political allegiance to the two parties, disaffection with Bush and Clinton, and anxiety over the economy were actually no worse in 1992 than they were in 1980 when John Anderson ran. But Perot won 19 percent of the vote, while Anderson won just 6.6 percent. What this comparison, laid out in detail by the authors of Third Parties in America, suggests is that, rather than a pendulum that swings back and forth, political alienation has become a permanent fixture of our politics. Third-party voters, at least the kind that Anderson and Perot stirred, exist as a lode ready to be mined.

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.

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?

But Is a Third Party Possible?