Toward Third Parties
In the 2004 Election
University of Minnesota Morris
In 2000, Ralph Nader became the second third-party candidate in the past three elections (Perot in 1992 and 1996) to affect the outcome of a Presidential race by garnering enough votes and turning out a number of possible non-voters. By 2004 Nader’s name itself seemed to be a curse word in political discourse. Despite people proudly wearing buttons proclaiming, “Anyone But Bush,” they were still not willing for that “Anyone” to be Nader. Voting for Kerry was seen to be the only practical way of making your vote count if you were opposed to George Bush being in office. Seemingly the “two-party tyranny” espoused by Lisa Disch was moving into full swing, denouncing anyone who supported a third-party candidate (particularly a left-leaning one). Signs endorsing Cobb (the Green party candidate) were rare, Nader signs were nearly non-existent, and the Libertarians, despite a growing popularity found very little electoral support. In the final tally, Nader ended up with only 400,706 votes nationally, compared to his 2,882,955 votes in 2000, when his 3% of the vote was much larger than the margin of victory in the popular count. This article is an effort to examine what effect, if any, the backlash against Nader, within the framework of third-party voting in general, had on voter behavior in the 2004 election.
History of Third-Parties in the United States
Let’s first examine third parties, their history in United States Presidential politics, and why people vote for them at all. This overview of third-party politics in Presidential campaigns is important for setting up third-party voting as well as the institutional obstacles they face in American politics.
Although American politics have been a two-party system almost since the inception of the country, it did not begin that way. The first two elections were undisputed wins by George Washington, who rode his popularity as a Revolutionary general to victory. Afterwards Washington stepped down, opening up the Presidency for a two-party race, something that would never be seriously challenged again, despite numerous interesting entries. The Federalists and the Jeffersonians competed in 1796 in the first disputed Presidential election. In 1804, the first Presidential caucus occurred. It was not until 1824 that no candidate (there were four who garnered electoral votes) received a majority of the Electoral College, thus sending the decision to the House of Representatives.
The first foray for a third-party candidate occurred in 1848. Martin Van Buren, a former President, ran under the Free Soil Party banner and ended up with 10% of the total vote. The most important factor in his electoral bid is that the votes he garnered secured the election for one of the major party candidates. Finally, in 1892, James Weaver, running for the Populist Party, became the only third party candidate between the Civil War and World War I to actually carry a state, although he only received 8.5% of the vote. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, under both the Democratic and Populist banners fought a two-candidate battle, but lost. Third-party voting decreased until 1940, when only .4% of all votes went to a candidate not of the two dominant parties.
In 1948 Strom Thurmond received 39 electoral votes and nearly 1.2 million votes. Henry Wallace also received over a million votes that year, running for the Progressive Party. Combined with other third-party candidates, they garnered over 5% of the total vote. It would not be until 1968, however, that a third-party made any sort of impact in a Presidential election. That year, in an election that would be decided by less than 125,000 and .7% of the votes, George C. Wallace, running for the American Independent Party, managed to get 46 electoral votes and 13.5% of the popular vote.
In the 1990’s Ross Perot would stir up the world of Presidential politics in both the 1992 and 1996 elections. In 1992, Perot received 19% of the popular vote and in 1996 he got 8% of the popular vote. Perot never received an electoral vote, but both of his campaigns did have an effect on the two major candidates’ campaigns. Then, in 2000 came what has become the largest controversy in third-party politics in Presidential elections. Ralph Nader, running as a Green party candidate, in a race decided by just more than a half million popular votes and five electoral votes, received 2,882,955 popular votes. The controversy came when in Florida that year, Bush, needing to win the state to secure his election, came out less than 2,000 votes ahead of Gore. Nader got nearly 100,000 votes in Florida. This led to a flurry of scholarly activity on whether Nader actually affected the election. To be fair, there were four other third-party candidates in Florida who received more votes than the margin of victory. Finally, this past fall, Nader, felt a backlash of support, and only received a little over 400,000 votes, just 1% of the total and not enough to affect the popular outcome. With this background in mind I will now move on to examine the current third party literature.
As previously mentioned, there are two ways to investigate the effects of third parties within elections. The first looks directly at the third parties themselves - Who votes for them, the candidates, the issues etc. The second examines the various obstacles that third parties face both institutionally and within the electoral system. While both of these schools of thought are seemingly intertwined most authors only specifically consider one of them at a time.
Third Parties: What are they?
In their book, Multiparty Politics in America, Herrnson and Green examine four types of third-parties within the historical framework of the United States. The first is “Enduring Comprehensive Parties,” which attempt to mirror the major parties of the time. They tend to be small and influential on state or occasionally regional elections. For example, “The American (or Know-Nothing) Party won control of the Massachusetts governorship and both chambers of the state legislature in 1854 (19).” The authors describe enduring minor parties as any which achieve electoral success over multiple elections. These types of minor parties have dwindled in importance as it has become more and more difficult to persuade former strong candidates of the major parties to run under a third-party banner.
This leads us to Herrnson and Green’s second type of minor party: the candidate focused party. These parties are not created to mirror a major party, but simply to forward an attractive candidate. They usually do not last longer than two elections, since they depend entirely on that candidate’s popularity. Ross Perot, in 1992 and 1996, garnered a respectable number of votes, but his party is now inactive in American politics. In 1912, Roosevelt, after not receiving the GOP nomination, created a party to run for President, which led to a Democratic victory. In 1916, the Republican leadership convinced Roosevelt to return to the party and his third-party died (20).
The third type of third-parties is the single-issue party. These parties rally support around a “salient, highly charged cause or related set of causes (23).” Given that elections are highly visible political atmospheres, these parties attempt to ride that visibility to garner more awareness and support for a specific issue or set of issues. The Green party is an example of this party, although Nader’s national success is based more upon his popularity than the party’s platform. Still, the Green party has managed to win a number of local elections throughout the country. The New York state Right-to-Life party is another example of an issue party. Dealing solely with anti-abortion issues, this party has used its issue attention to support candidates with the same views.
This leads to Herrnson and Green’s fourth type of third-parties: fusion parties. Fusion is the act of having a single candidate receive endorsements from more than one party, and therefore have his or her name on more than one ballot line. While this practice has been outlawed for decades in most states and in national elections, there are still a number of states who allow its practice, most visibly New York. In New York there are a number of stable minor-parties which routinely help a candidate win an election by cross-endorsing them. In fact, “Of the fifty-seven major-party candidates who ran for Congress in 1994, thirty-six were cross-endorsed by one of New York’s minor parties (24-25).” These four types of party are important to understanding why third parties fail: they find it very difficult to fulfill a role while also becoming politically viable and successful.
Support for third-parties rises and falls “in response to national conditions, the performance of the two major parties, and the effects of the minor parties themselves (25).” Minor parties do well under poor economic conditions, particularly agriculturally, and may also have an impact when the two major parties fail to address an important issue (25). Finally, as stated before, third-parties can enjoy more success by nominating a popular candidate, such as Nader for the Greens in 2000.
Perhaps the most important facet of third-parties is why people do or do not actually vote for them. According to Green (61, Herrnson), using Harris Poll and NES data, between 1992 and 1998, 27% of the population would prefer the growth of a multi-party system intent on effectively challenging the dominance of the two major parties over either candidate-focused elections or a continuation of the two-party system. Only 38% preferred the two-party system (61, Herrnson). The author also showed that independent voters, rather than Democrats or Republicans were most likely to “push” for a multi-party system (64, Herrnson). This is extremely important since the number of independents has been increasing over the past half century (324 Table 17-1, Niemi).
Green also examined the reasons for public dissatisfaction with the two-party system. Nearly one-half of all people who preferred the multi-party system had at least one major complaint about the current two-party system (66, Herrnson). When examining who these voters are that prefer a multi-party system Green finds that, “Multiparty Democrats were more liberal, Multiparty Independents more conservative, and the Multiparty Republicans roughly the same as their Two-Party counterparts (69, Herrnson).” At the same time, however, the more liberal multiparty Democrats were actually less likely to support a third-party, thereby limiting the possibilities for a successful “progressive” party. Overall, Green finds that there is a significant amount of support for the creation of a multi-party system in American electoral politics.
Third Party Obstacles
Despite considerable support for third parties, few have actually enjoyed any sort of success, and those that have are frequently short-lived and are centered upon one candidate’s popularity. A number of scholars have looked for causes of this discrepancy and many factors have surfaced. Perhaps the first place to look at is our own political culture. The American political system is ingrained within this country, from the media to our schools. We are taught a two-party existence. Lisa Disch, in her recently published, The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, discusses the reason that actual third party electoral support does not occur:
Powerful arguments could be made in a context where the two-party doctrine did not sanctify major party duopoly as a democratic design. But wherever that doctrine holds sway, where journalists pay homage to its tenets as much as by the stories they refuse to tell as by those they publish, where academics pay lip service to the two-party system, and where voters take it for granted, the very culture of common sense silences those arguments (20, Disch).
While not as impassioned, Dwyre and Kolodny, in their examination of barriers to minor party success, note three cultural obstacles. The first deals with the definition of democracy. At the core of the American definition of democracy is the idea of majority rule, a “winner takes all” attitude. Without a redefinition of democracy that includes the possibility of proportional representation, coalition governments, etc. there will be little support in elections for minor parties (162, Herrnson). The second cultural barrier is that of entrenchment. The two-party system is so dominant that voters must work within the structure or risk “wasting their vote” on a third-party candidate. The permeability of the two major parties also gives rise to the idea that they can adapt to the opinions of the majority of voters, despite the low likelihood of this being effective given the diversity of opinions (162, Herrnson). The third factor deals with the plausibility of minor parties as an alternative to the two-party system. Since most voters don’t think of third parties as viable options for electoral success they are unlikely to support them at the polls, no matter what their views on a multi-party system are (162, Herrnson).
Disch adds another factor in two-party dominance. She claims that the scholars of political science are just as much to blame as any other factor for denying access to third-party candidates.
The two-party system is more than a name for a thing. A concept that we invoke casually, as if it did no more than name a feature of our reality, it forms the very fields to which it seems only to refer. The linchpin for a complex of observed facts regarding the inevitability of third-party failure, and deep-seated beliefs about the superior accountability and stability of two-party democracies, it serves both to orient action and to organize a field of knowledge. In short, the two-party system is a catchphrase (59, Disch).
As examples of this scholarly bias, in their investigation of voter recall, Lodge and Steenbergen, use only two candidates in a race, one Democrat and one Republican (240, Niemi). Lau and Redlawsk, examining what they call “voting correctly” use only two candidates, again one Democrat and one Republican (139, Niemi). Most academic study done of electoral politics solidifies the two-party system as the system in American politics.
Cultural biases are not the only obstacles for minor parties to overcome. There are an incredible number of legal and institutional barriers as well. The most overlooked, but oftentimes most important piece of political parties is the actual definition. For example, when Minnesota lawmakers were debating the use of fusion after a challenge to its legality in the 1990’s, “they were surprised to discover no definition of a minor party,” in the statute books. “There were access thresholds for putting an alternative candidate on the ballot, but these did not constitute a definition (23, Disch).” In terms of ballot access, every state and the District of Columbia all have separate definitions for political party. The only faintly national definition of parties is within the “campaign finance regulations…These national definitions are not favorable to minor parties (163, Herrnson).”
Beyond just their definition, minor parties face incredible legal hurdles. Voter registration in many states requires minor parties to gather an incredible amount of signatures for a party that doesn’t exist. Many states also close registration thirty days prior to an election (164, Herrnson). Those states that have same-day registration (Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin) frequently record higher voter turnouts and larger voting percentages for third-party candidates. Another hurdle is ballot access. In most states parties that receive a certain percentage of the vote in an election are not required “to collect signatures or expend any other effort to remain on the ballot (164, Herrnson).” Illegalized fusion also works as a barrier for minor party influence. “Fusion makes it easier for minor parties to realize some success because fusion tickets allow citizens to vote for a minor party without feeling they have wasted their vote (165, Herrnson).” The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Timmons et al v. Twin Cities Area New Party in 1997 that a state law against fusion was constitutional. In that case the assistant solicitor general of Minnesota argued that, “the state forbids fusion to prevent voter confusion and to guard against ballot manipulation (166, Herrnson).” Disch asserts, however, that fusion “opened up options for parties and voters…citizens could cast a protest vote without ‘wasting’ a ballot or contributing indirectly to the victory of their least favorite establishment party candidate (39, Disch).”
Perhaps the greatest impediment to third-party success, however, is simply the American electoral system. On the Presidential level, the popular vote does not decide the President. As recently as 2000, a President was selected without receiving a majority of the popular vote. This setup, where a candidate must win an entire state to receive any “real” electoral winnings, is a major hurdle for minor party candidates. Ross Perot, as a third-party candidate in 1992 received nearly 20 million votes, but in effect, received nothing, because he did not garner a single electoral vote. In contrast, George Wallace in 1968, who received a much smaller percentage of the total vote, actually did better than Perot, since he won a number of Southern states. With a system of proportional representation, Perot would have gotten approximately 102 electoral votes in 1992, and Clinton would not have received a majority of the electoral votes, thus throwing the election decision to the House of Representatives (167, Herrnson). The Electoral College is simply the physical representation of a dominating “winner-takes-all” system that is widespread in American politics.
Dwyre and Kolodny also describe two other barriers, both institutional. The first is campaign finance. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) gives public funding to major party candidates, defined as those who party received 25% or more in the previous presidential election. For minor party candidates, those receiving between 5 and 25% of the previous total, they can receive some public funding. Finally, for new parties, they can only receive public funding after the election and only if they receive at least 5% of the vote (168, Herrnson). The other institutional hurdle they discuss is that of the media. Third-party candidates are basically ignored by the media. In cases where they do receive exposure, it is usually negative. They are also frequently barred from presidential debates and their conventions rarely receive media coverage. Overall, third-party candidates have trouble finding free media and usually do not have the resources to get paid media (170, Herrnson). Media could provide better coverage of third parties, but it would require a drastic change in current practices.
An example that shows the effects of loosened barriers for minor party success is Jesse Ventura’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota. Ventura, a minor party candidate was a former pro wrestler and mayor of a Minneapolis suburb. He enjoyed name recognition and the press mostly ignored him at the beginning. Due to his party label, he did not have to go through any extra effort to get on the ballot. In fact, Ventura was listed first on the ballot because of Minnesota law. He was automatically included in gubernatorial debates as well and “Ventura received through generous state campaign finance laws over $300,000 that he used to buy television advertising time (95, Lentz).” Near the end of the campaign, the press began to notice Ventura, but instead of receiving negative press, many of the stories were positive and contributed to his growing popularity. Finally, Minnesota’s same day registration gave Ventura the ability to have a late surge in popularity actually equate to votes at the polls.
As previous research indicates, minor parties and their candidates face tremendous institutional, cultural, and historical barriers. For a minor party to succeed, not only would laws and regulations need to change, but also our ideas about the political system we utilize in the United States. While I will not directly touch upon a number of these previously mentioned barriers, it is important to realize how deep the discrimination of third parties and the domination of the two-party system sink into the American political construction. This depth of discrimination in general is what I am attempting to show in this study.
Through statistical analysis of an exit survey of the 2004 Presidential election, I hope to find evidence of two-party dominance as well as the restraints that are placed upon the success of third parties. Third parties are institutionally and culturally discriminated against in the American political system. I believe the data will show that third parties, in voter’s views, are seen as unviable options or a “wasted vote.” It will also show that most voters do not even consider third parties as politically existent. I expect to find that the dominant view of the two-party system is prevalent in the minds of American voters and has an effect on people’s voting behavior, especially attitudes toward third parties.
In a discussion such as this it is important to use more than one way to examine third-party political effects. Most political scientists to this point, however, have looked at third party failure and the two-party system dominance as separate. There are restraints on third parties becoming politically successful, but there are also reasons why the two-party system would not allow a third party to exist even without these restraints, namely two-party dominance. [In these terms, two-party dominance is the aggregate power which the Republican and Democratic parties hold over the political system, including voting, policy-making, media framing and so forth] Desiring to fulfill both of these aspects of the political system, I propose to study two types of questions. One is to ask questions specifically regarding third-party behavior, beliefs, and voting. The other is to examine the two-party system’s dominance in political thought and culture.
Utilizing exit polling completed during Election Day 2004, I will be using a number of questions from the survey covering a broad range of levels of third-party support or two-party dominance. Most of the statistical methods used are simple cross-tabs which are adequate to make conclusions from the survey responses. [For detailed information on the Exit Survey in general, refer to Appendix II.]
Nader’s impact on Third-Party Voting
The first responses I examined were those to the question: After Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, are you more or less likely to vote for a third-party candidate? I completed simple cross-tabs with the vote choices for the 2004 Presidential race (Table 1), the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race (Table 2), and party identification (Table 3). The most noticeable aspect of these three cross-tabs is the effect that Nader had upon Democratic voters. Among those who voted for Kerry in 2004, 45.2% said that Nader’s campaign in 2000 made them less likely to vote for a third party candidate (Table 1). That same percentage was 60% among those who voted for Humphrey (DFL gubernatorial candidate) in 1998 (Table 2) and 51.4% among those who identify with the Democratic Party (Table 3). To compare to the Republican counterparts those same percentages were 20% (Table 1), 29.2% (Table 2), and 21.4% (Table 3). Another interesting factor is that in the 2004 election, of those who voted for either Cobb or Nader, five of nine were more likely to vote for a third party candidate and the last four it had no impact (Table 1). This is in stark contrast to those who voted for Ventura in 1998. Those voters were more likely to have Nader be a negative impact on third party voting (31.4%) than a positive (21.6%), although nearly half (47.1%) said Nader had no impact upon their vote (Table 2).