Who’s in Charge Here: Third parties have it rough

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — This past weekend, the reliably conservative Editorial Board of the Richmond-Times Dispatch offered its endorsement for President, and for the first time in 36 years did not select the Republican. Instead, the newspaper made a bold choice of a third party candidate: Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The endorsement – the first for Johnson from a major city’s news daily – made national news. (I knew it was coming, but first read about it on CNN.) Newspapers may not be what they once were, but their endorsements of political candidates are still treated as important events. At the very least, newspaper endorsements signal to other elite actors (politicians, members of the media, and donors) that the candidate is credible and possibly worth supporting. And while the RTD may not be what it once was, it claims to reach over 600,000 readers in print and online; plenty of people still read it, and low-information voters particularly look to cues from trusted, consistently available sources – e.g., the local newspaper – to decide how to vote.

No matter how Gary Johnson does this year, it’s an unfortunate result of our current political structure: We’re stuck with the two party system, and probably stuck with these two parties.

Of course, there’s another big cue that voters may follow: political party. If you don’t know anything about a candidate, the fact that they are a Democrat or Republican can tell you at least SOMETHING about what they stand for. Yet the two major parties are both suffering from unpopular candidates for President this year (with one raising questions about whether he even belongs in the party at all). Still, endorsements for other options like Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, or Independent candidate Evan McMullin – all of whom will appear on the Virginia ballot this fall – are extremely rare.

Why is it so hard for third parties to gain a foothold in elections? It’s in part because the game is rigged – the Democratic and Republican Parties have a lot of control over the rules for ballot access and debate participation. But there’s a more fundamental problem that has to do with the structure of American politics. The basic rules of our electoral system explain why the two major parties haven’t suffered more from Trump/Clinton backlash– and why third-party options like the Libertarians have such a tough time breaking through. (WARNING: Politics lessons ahead.)

It may be surprising to learn that in general, political scientists like political parties. Parties solve a few of the key problems of government, which is why they arose despite the admonishments of early leaders like George Washington. (He famously warned in his Farewell Address of the “baneful effects” of political factions.). Parties, for example, are a particularly efficient way to coordinate action among different political offices, and so are helpful in governance. They also have proven essential for elections; for instance, we’ve found no better way to organize national coalitions to win Presidential elections.

But a key limitation of American government structure leads us to have two, and ONLY two of these parties. The term we often use in political science is “SMDP” – a Single Member District Plurality system. That’s a complicated name for the voting system with which you should already be familiar, especially for electing members of the House of Representatives: you vote in a geographic area or DISTRICT; you elect only a SINGLE MEMBER from that district; and the winner is the candidate who has a PLURALITY of the votes (not a majority, but just more than any other candidate in the district). The key here is SINGLE MEMBER; there is only one winner or, to put it more bluntly: second place is first loser. This system gets more complicated when you vote for President (thank you, Electoral College!), but the key point remains the same: in general, there is only ONE winner in each state.

The result is dominance of the system by two parties nationally, and often just one party regionally, like Democrats in the Northeast. If two parties can articulate opposite policy ideas, they can distinguish themselves enough to swing elections back and forth between them. But in such a winner-takes-all system, there’s not a lot of room for nuance. In parliamentary systems in Europe, there ARE second-place prizes (and third place, and so on), so a Green Party can be successful by articulating a narrow range of issues and concerns. And in fact, most democracies have moved away from our type of elections; the American system is almost unique in the world in frustrating the ambitions of these smaller parties.

Under such a system, it’s generally easy to choose between two candidates: just pick the one you like best. But what if there are more than two? Let’s say you like Candidate C more than Candidate B, but like both WAY more than Candidate A. Should you vote for your preferred candidate? What if C is not terribly popular – wouldn’t a vote for B make more sense to at least prevent A from winning?

This is exactly the choice Americans are faced with in every election that features a third party candidate. In a single-member election, a vote for a third party can effectively translate into a vote for the least-favored of the two major parties. (Just ask Al Gore.) But this kind of strategic thinking is difficult. It requires clear preferences, as well as an awareness of candidates’ standings in the polls (and confidence in those polls’ accuracy). The easiest – and possibly best – choice is often to vote your conscience. And with so many voters having unfavorable opinions of Trump and Clinton, we could see more than a few follow the Times-Dispatch’s lead and go with Johnson.

But can enough of these voters support Johnson to make him an actual contender for President, and the Libertarians the new second party in American politics? History says no. The 1992 Presidential campaign of Texas billionaire Ross Perot was one of the most successful third party runs in American history. And yet Perot still only earned less than 20% of the popular vote, helping throw the election to Democrat Bill Clinton. Perot then founded a Reform Party to capitalize on his support, but the party never approached his original success. In fact, the last time a national party was displaced from the two-party duopoly was the Whigs by the Republicans, and that required a nation on the brink of civil war.

The Republican Party is certainly in disarray today. But that’s been true before: after Goldwater, after Gingrich, even after Obama. The GOP will likely regroup and recover from this election cycle enough to maintain at least the hold on one of the two spots. This is especially true since Libertarianism while holding more appeal than Johnson’s poll numbers indicate, seems to have a ceiling of support. It’s not clear how interest from, say, a quarter of the electorate, translates into a national party with a shot at winning a majority in a presidential election. And that’s what you need in the American political system.

Still, no matter what and how voters choose in November, it pays to remember that elections have consequences. The parties have their faults, but they DO articulate a host of different positions on policies that range from gay and transgender rights to immigration to economic policy; they are NOT interchangeable. (Again, you could ask Al Gore about this, or just some of those who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and then got eight years of George W. Bush.) If the polls tighten, and Virginia regains its status as a battleground state, then voting for Johnson could throw the state, and possibly the election, to voters’ least liked candidate.

No matter how Johnson does this year, it’s an unfortunate result of our current political structure: We’re stuck with the two party system, and probably stuck with these two parties.

Richard Meagher teaches politics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @rjmarr. Follow his blog here.

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