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By Jay Cost

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A Christian Right Third Party?

There has been a lot of talk lately about Christian conservative leaders - James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and so on - bolting the Republican Party to form a third party. But today The Hill indicates that they may be backing off the threat:

The two conservative leaders said they remain optimistic that a Republican candidate who is strong on their issues can win next year, but they think Giuliani against Clinton in the general election would be a "frustrating option."

What does not appear to be an option next year is a break with the GOP in support of a third-party candidate.

While conservative religious leaders said last week the move is something they would consider, Bauer and Perkins said doing so would ensure a Democratic president. Perkins, however, said it is something they would consider in the long run.

"Everybody realizes that a third-party candidate would not work in this election," Bauer said.

This is not terribly surprising to me. There are two distinct scenarios for such a third party candidate. The best case scenario - which is what most people have been talking about - is that the candidate takes enough of the vote to hand key states over to Hillary Clinton. This is similar to what Ralph Nader is believed to have done in 2000.

However, there is a less-than-best case scenario, which I think is very possible. And that is the candidacy fails to catch fire - and the candidate winds up being a non-factor in the election. And, if the GOP wins despite the challenge, the candidate is left in the cold in the next administration. Think Pat Buchanan in 2000. He only received 0.43% of the national popular vote - and Buchanan had the advantage of having been on the ballot in all 50 states. This Christian third party candidate would have to expend resources to get himself on the ballot, and then start trying to persuade voters. This would be a very difficult task - and the chances of doing much worse than Nader 2000 are, I think, pretty good.

My intuition is that it would therefore be quite hard for these conservatives to recruit somebody to run. The worst case scenario is that you are a non-factor. The best case scenario is that you are a pariah among your fellow partisans. Who would be interested in that? If they cannot find a fairly well known person to carry the new party's flag into battle - their chances of being a non-factor would be all the greater.

This is why my suspicion is that Dobson, Bauer and the rest may not be playing to the general election. I think they may have another goal in mind. It's just a hypothesis, but I think it makes some sense. It certainly explains the seeming irrationality of this kind of third party threat.

Let's work backwards. The declaration that these Christian right leaders might leave the party has generated a lot of free publicity. This has given them an opportunity to explain why they might leave - namely, Giuliani is pro-choice. They have taken every advantage to do so. This, in turn, has enabled them to attend to what they think is the reason that Giuliani has the lead: Christian conservative voters do not yet know that he is pro-choice. That, I think, is what might be motivating them. They are trying to communicate to sympathetic, unknowledgable voters.

This is also from the Hill:

But the conservative leaders acknowledged that there is a divide currently among social conservatives as to what is more important to their base, social issues or projected national security strength.

Bauer said the divide is "puzzling" to Washington-based evangelical leaders, but Perkins maintained that once social conservatives know more about Giuliani's position on abortion, his support would weaken.

"I think it's a stretch for Mayor Giuliani to get a majority of the social conservative vote once it's all said and done," Perkins said.

I think this approaches why these leaders are making the noises they are making. I think that perhaps they are trying to signal to their constituency that Giuliani does not stand with them. Do not underestimate the monetary expense of this kind of mass communication. The rank and file Christian evangelical voter is not yet paying full attention (remember that most of them are not members of the interest groups that these people lead) - and to communicate a message to them could be very expensive because they are diffused across the country. They do not all live in one or two media markets. They are in every media market. Accordingly, they might need to do something drastic, like get Giuliani's pro-choice stance in all the papers and television shows by threatening a bolt from the GOP.

Like I said, this is just a hypothesis. I'd be interested to hear some thoughts from people on it.

-Jay Cost