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Why the Third-Party Dream Remains Just That

Why the Third-Party Dream Remains Just That

By Scott Conroy - December 12, 2013

For as long as the United States has maintained its two-party system of government, reformers have dreamed of upending the status quo.

From Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party of 1912 to Ross Perot's 1992 independent run for the White House, a smattering of real contenders in the last century pieced together personality-driven campaigns that threatened to change everything.

But those candidacies fell short, and time and again other efforts to establish lasting third-party movements have failed spectacularly. In next year’s midterm elections, just about every viable candidate on just about every ballot will have an “R” or a “D” following his or her name -- a reality that persists despite polling trends indicating a large portion of the electorate views those two letters dimly; they could scarcely carry a more negative connotation if they were painted in scarlet and pinned to the candidates’ chests.

And so, with the time so ripe for a viable third party to emerge, why does it remain so difficult for such undertakings to gain traction at any level of campaigning?

One of the biggest impediments is a kind of Catch-22: People who might consider supporting third-party candidates typically don’t believe that these long shots can win, so they end up settling on a Republican or Democrat.

A similar premise applies to exposure via free media coverage: Non-major party candidates inevitably start far behind in this all-important matter.

Running in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial contest as the Libertarian Party nominee, Robert Sarvis -- a Harvard-educated software engineer, businessman and lawyer -- hoped to capitalize on the widespread antipathy voters had for both major candidates in the race. Polling, after all, consistently showed that most voters saw choosing between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli as akin to taking either a punch in the face or a punch in the gut.

In the end, Sarvis fared better than any non-major party gubernatorial contender in a Southern state in more than four decades. But that impressive feat was tempered by cold reality: He received only 6.5 percent of the vote and was never a threat to win.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics, he recalled crisscrossing the state in the early months of his candidacy to generate media attention and build his name identification with voters.

“The vast majority of people, they were polite about it, but you could tell it was sort of like, ‘Oh, who cares?’” Sarvis recalled.

Despite the insurgent nature of his campaign and the libertarian label that he admits evokes “a mountain guy off the grid” caricature for some, Sarvis sought to cultivate a moderate image that could appeal to all points on the ideological spectrum: He ran on a platform favoring gun rights and school choice, as well as same-sex marriage and drug policy reform.

Despite sustained warnings from the Cuccinelli camp that Sarvis was essentially acting as a stalking horse for McAuliffe, exit polls showed that the Democrat’s ultimate margin of victory would have been larger had the Libertarian Party candidate not been on the ballot.

But Sarvis struggled to gain sustained media attention, even as he polled for a time in double digits. As he knew all too well, his toughest opponent wasn’t McAuliffe, Cuccinelli, or the wealthy donors and interest groups that allowed each man to rack up huge sums of money.

Sarvis’s most powerful foe was the American political system itself.

As K. Sabeel Rahman -- a Reginald Lewis Fellow at Harvard Law School -- explained, candidates like Sarvis tend to do better in countries that have proportional representation, multi-member districts, or parliamentary systems, since third parties can actually win seats and gain real political power in such systems.

"Our winner-take-all electoral system is hostile terrain for viable third parties,” explained Rahman, whose area of interest is democratic institutional reform. “In a system where there is only one elected representative per district, where that representative is chosen based on winning the most votes, and where the executive is elected separately from the legislature, the odds of winning actual political power are stacked in favor of big-tent parties.”

In Virginia, Sarvis found that even voters who agreed with him on most issues -- and preferred him on a personal level to either of the other two candidates -- were reluctant to get behind him.

“Generally, it’s very hard to break the mentality that you’re throwing your vote away,” Sarvis said. “That’s the biggest thing -- when people want to vote for somebody else, but they feel compelled to choose between two people who are most likely to win.”

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Not every third-party candidacy has been doomed to this fate. From Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura to Maine’s Angus King, outsiders in the recent past have achieved some success on the sub-presidential level, and there remains no shortage of interest groups who continue to promote them.

But attempts to build viable power bases -- needed to galvanize the national interest and energy required to make such undertakings last -- have proved futile. This track record has led most prominent reformers to conclude that a top-down approach is the most tenable solution to upending the two-party system at the presidential level.

“Any third-party movement will require someone to lead the charge,” said Mark McKinnon, co-founder of the bipartisan No Labels group. “There is no question the environment is ripe for someone to step into the political vacuum. But the table stakes to get on the ballot is a minimum of $30 million. That's a huge hurdle, but not insurmountable. It just counts out most mere mortals.”

McKinnon and his fellow No Labels co-chairs -- former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (a Republican) and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (a Democrat) -- have found avenues to voice their views on the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” at high-brow think-tank forums, and during button-down symposiums around the nation’s capital. But No Labels has struggled to connect beyond the David Brooks-reading set, and its focus is stuck on matters of policy and governance, not on winning the White House.

In 2010, however, a group that called itself Americans Elect set out to take a major step toward just that goal.

The group’s backers were, for the most part, adherents of the socially liberal/fiscally conservative centrism professed in the pockets of money and power along the Acela corridor and on the West Coast. The group’s plan was first to raise lots of money. And that’s exactly what it did -- hauling in an impressive $35 to $40 million, according to reports.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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