It’s election season, and there’s a battle being fought—not the struggle between Democrats and Republicans but the fight about whether to vote for a third-party candidate. If progressive people want to drive their establishment Democrat friends up the wall, all they have to do is mention a third-party candidate. Before long, a traumatized Democrat will be rocking back and forth in the corner muttering about Ralph Nader.
Many will react with panic, assuming that casting a ballot for a non-Democrat is tantamount to throwing away a vote—or handing it to the Republican candidate.
So, is it true? Is the consumer advocate just as responsible for the GOP’s 2000 victory asBush v. Gore? University of Iowa political science professor Michael Lewis-Beck isn’t convinced.
“In 2000, it’s not clear,” he said. Thanks to the peculiarities of the electoral college, Gore might not have won any additional states if Nader hadn’t run, according to Lewis-Beck.
“The rules of the political system for gaining office work against third parties, left or right,” he explained when we spoke by phone. “Almost all American elections are winner-take-all. So if you get the most votes, you get the pie.”
You have to look farther back than Ross Perot’s 1992 run to find the last national third-party candidate that accomplished much of anything on Election Day. As Lewis-Beck pointed out, the last time a third-party candidate gained electoral votes during a presidential election was in 1968, when former Alabama governor George Wallace ran as an independent. The pro-segregation Dixiecrat successfully took five Southern states.
There’s plenty of work to be done before voters go to the polls. When the basic outline of a political system won’t make room for a viable third option, candidates operating outside party boundaries have their work cut out for them. To even gain access to a spot on a state’s ballot requires thousands of signatures or a hefty filing fee that many underfunded candidates can’t access.
Some candidates on the left have emerged in recent elections with a candor that sets them apart from the liberal mainstream. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and Mayor Bill de Blasio all struck a chord with a broader left-wing base, stirring hope in voters who were tired of candidates who were willing to negotiate away all the values that distinguished them from the opposition. While the new financial regulations that have wormed their way through Congress since 2008, for example, have been watered down to benefit the big banks, Warren has been a steadfast critic of the government’s favors to Wall Street. But a de Blasio Democrat or a Warren Democrat is still a Democrat.
These politicians remain outliers and have virtually no analogues in the November Senate races. This election cycle’s independent candidate success story is Greg Orman, who is running against Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas. Although the official Democrat, Chad Taylor, dropped out of the race as Orman gained momentum in the polls, the independent candidate is a businessman who has previously registered with both parties, owns guns, and isn’t a fan of Obamacare. He’s not a left-wing politician in the Democratic Party; he’s a centrist.
“The impediments to having a third party are great at the state level, they’re great at the local level, and they’re even more great at the national level,” said Dr. Arnie Arnesen, a former Democratic member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
“The reason why there’s an illusion that there’s a more vibrant party or alternative voice on the right is because there is cash that values that voice,” said Arnesen. “If there isn’t a check with a comma in it, the voice seems quieter.”
Aggressive funding and campaigning by conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, have aired nearly 44,000 television adsin the current election cycle to ensure GOP senatorial candidates are heard. Numbers like these make it easy to understand why the Tea Party has, at times, looked like a viable pseudo-party on the right.
“When you speak for guns, you’ve got the NRA and the gun industry behind you. When you deny climate change, you’ve got the oil, coal, and gas industries,” said Arnesen. “If you’re on the other side and you want to talk about clean air and universal health care, there’s no money in it because what you’re looking for doesn’t make any one person particularly rich.”
The question for Arnesen is not about the lack of a healthy third-party options on the left but rather the lack of distinction between the two dominant parties.
As Arnesen sees it, the distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats has become ill defined, their political ideologies muddied by dollar signs. It’s a contention that Lewis-Beck agreed with.
“We don’t need a green party. We don’t need a union party. We need a second party. We need an alternative that doesn’t genuflect to Wall Street,” said Arnesen. “You’re looking for a third party; I’m looking for a second. I had people beg me not to run as a Democrat, but the only way I could find a second party was to make one.”
“The Democrats are the least liberal they’ve been in my memory,” Lewis-Beck said. “They’ve just drifted more and more to the right. I think they need a wake-up call. How bad do things have to get before people say this has got to stop?”
It’s not just the electoral system that makes it hard for third-party candidates to win in the U.S. According to Lewis-Beck’s research, 90 percent of American voters identify with the Democratic or the Republican Party, either openly or when asked which way they “lean.”
“If someone has a psychological attachment to a party, which most people do, they’ll tend to stay with that party no matter what,” said Lewis-Beck. “And Dems are in the majority in terms of party identification. The relationship between saying you’re in or believe in a party is not a perfect predictor of your vote, but it’s close.”
That tendency to identify with one of two parties is reinforced by our electoral system. While many European governments have proportional representation systems, which means parliamentary seats are won in proportion to votes, the American winner-take-all approach doesn’t allow room for as many perspectives. Whether or not this is a virtue of stability is up for debate. Meanwhile, in France, Lewis-Beck notes, 15 percent of the voters pull the proverbial lever for Trotskyite candidates—and that vote has an effect on who sits in Parliament.
For now, the kind of drastic electoral reform that would allow for a viable third party seems unlikely if not foolhardy.
“It’s really hard to change the system—these are dreary truths,” he said. Still, Lewis-Beck acknowledged his respect for the value of an individual choice. “The only tool most Americans have to influence the political system is their vote. It’s a sacred thing. I use my vote to support someone I believe in and respect. And if enough people do that, then you get a message out there.”
Rebecca McCray is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to TakePart’s social justice section. She has written for ThinkProgress, Full Stop Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.