The Third Party Blueprint

The punditry is incorrectly assuming that a third party has to be ineffectual.

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The flag flies at half-staff on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, at the Capitol in honor of the Washington Navy Yard shooting victims. (Tom Risen for USN&WR)
The flag flies at half-staff on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, at the Capitol in honor of the Washington Navy Yard shooting victims. (Tom Risen for USN&WR)

At the end of the government shutdown and drama of a near-default, there was a renewed discussion over whether the tea party would ever split and become a third party. This idea was even been endorsed by some activists and media figures. (See Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson, Matt Kibbe and Sean Hannity all suggesting the idea.)

The punditry surrounding a hypothetical "tea party third party" focused on the facts about how third parties don't do well in American politics. Nate Cohn wrote "even if there was a third party candidate emerging out of today's Republican coalition, they probably wouldn't win." The Atlantic noted "no third party has had a decent showing in quite some time."

The punditry is incorrectly assuming that a third party has to be ineffectual. This is not the only way to operate. There is an alternative to running an ineffectual vanity campaign, and that is to run a tactical campaign with the explicit goal of extracting concessions out of the more mainstream political parties.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

A good example of an attempt at a tactical campaign is George Wallace's 1968 presidential bid. A good example of an ineffective vanity campaign would be the third party bids of Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Gary Johnson and the majority of other third party contenders.

In the 1968 election, George Wallace ran for president on a pro-segregationist platform fully aware that he had no chance of winning. His goal was not to win, but to extract leverage out of the political process.

Wallace believed that if he won enough states, he could prevent both the Democrats and the Republicans from winning 270 electoral votes. This would throw the role of selecting the president to the House of Representatives, where segregationist Southern Democrats still had sway. Wallace also made all his electors declare that they would vote for a different presidential candidate if Wallace ever made a deal with his opponents. So theoretically, Wallace would release his delegates to vote for the candidate that conceded to the Wallace platform.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

None of this ended up happening, but it could have. Aaron W. Brown of the University of North Georgia has a recent paper which looks at the effectiveness of Wallace's campaign, and points out he almost achieved his stated political goal:

Though he did not succeed in obtaining the margin needed to deny Nixon a straight victory, Wallace came closer than appears in surface examination. Wallace took second in Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Additionally, the election turned out closer than originally expected with the states of California, Illinois, and Ohio too close to call until the next morning. Nixon was declared the victor in all three by margins at or beneath 3 percentage points.

Think about how this is different from most third party bids for the  presidency. While Perot did gain more popular votes than Wallace, he was never likely to become a power broker in that election. Nader's campaign was admittedly more consequential, but no one would claim that he ran with the goal of splitting the vote in Florida to help George W. Bush become president.

What might push a tea party candidate to run on a third party ticket in 2016? Imagine if the Republican nominee promises to "repair" the president's health care law instead of repealing it in its entirety. That would be sufficient for some tea partiers to throw a Republican campaign into jeopardy. Between now and 2016, there can be many other tactical or ideological disputes that may force a challenge, such as whether it is appropriate to use the debt ceiling and a government shutdown as political leverage or whether it is ever acceptable to negotiate with Democrats on the budget.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

If an issue emerged that enraged the base, a truly savvy tea party politician could aim to play the role of a political kingmaker. A tea party candidate could run to force the Republican Party to adopt a fringe party platform. A particularly bold candidate might even claim that if the tea party won in a few states, they could force the Republican (or even Democratic!) candidate to negotiate on them to win the electoral college. They may even believe that throwing the election to the House of Representatives and the Republicans there is the smart strategic move.

These ideas all sound extreme but remember that until recently, no one would have expected that there would be a move to shutdown the government unless a continuing resolution was passed which defunded the health care law. For politicians and activists who sincerely believe that they are fighting for freedom against socialist Democrats and traitorous RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) these sorts of long-odds strategies can appear very appealing.

There is a lot of time between now and the first real presidential nominations. If you start hearing new rumblings for a third party candidate, don't assume it's leaders plan to be ineffectual.