At a time when opinion polls indicate that Americans hold both major political parties in low esteem, can a third party move into the breach?
In the recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, when respondents were asked whether the Democrats in Congress have “the same priorities for the country as you do,” only 26 percent said yes. As for the Republicans in Congress, that same question drew an almost identical response, 24 percent, from those interviewed.
One reason voters might view Congress with distaste: evidence of corruption among House members and lobbyists.
Last week, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R- Calif., pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes from a defense contractor. Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe a House member (identified by lawyers in the case as Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio). And last year, former Rep. Frank Ballance Jr., D-N.C., who'd resigned from the House, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge stemming from his diversion of funds given to a charitable foundation he’d set up.
Allegations, and confessions of corruption among congressional Republicans could prompt voters in next November’s elections to install a Democratic majority in the House for the first time since 1994.
For Democrats, who seem to have the best opportunity since 1994 to regain control of the House, this would seem to be the worst time for disaffected Democrats to search for a third-party alternative.
Libertarians eye opening
But sensing public alienation from both major parties, third-party activists are trying to exploit the opening.
On Tuesday, voters’ willingness to back a third-party candidate will be put to the test as Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project which patrols the Arizona border to deter illegal immigrants, runs as the candidate of the American Independent Party against Republican John Campbell and three other candidates in a special election in California’s 48th congressional district.
“We’re in a rebuilding mode right now, all the focus is on 2006,” said Libertarian Party chief of staff Shane Cory.
The Libertarians are creating a voter identification database to pinpoint likely voters. “Dislodged voters are unhappy with the two-party system,” contended Cory. “That’s who we’re targeting.”
In January the party will launch its on-line “Libertarian Leadership School,” a six-week training course that will teach would-be candidates savvy such as understanding ballot access laws and complying with Federal Election Commission rules.
Another third-party stalwart, Kevin Zeese, former spokesman for Ralph Nader’s presidential bid last year, is running for the Senate seat in Maryland now held by retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat.
Third-party effort in Maryland
Zeese is seeking the nominations of three parties: the Libertarians, the Greens and the Populists.
He criticizes Democratic front-runner, Rep. Ben Cardin, for accepting campaign contributions from “the military-industrial complex,” from pro-Israel groups, and from the pharmaceutical industry.
At a recent meeting Zeese had with progressive Democrats, one of them said to him, “You should run as a Democrat; you have no chance of winning outside the two-party system.”
But Zeese said, “If I run as Democrat I don’t accomplish my objective; the two-party system has to be put behind us.”
When it comes to House races, third parties run relatively few candidates and those candidates get scant attention and few votes.
Third-party hopefuls have only a slim chance of winning a House seat partly because many seats are gerrymandered, or tailored, to favor one party, and in some cases, one particular incumbent.
In theory, a third party could hold the balance of power in the House, as happens in parliamentary systems such as Great Britain’s or Israel’s.
In 1996, when Ross Perot made his Reform Party bid for president, some Reform Party House candidates spoke in optimistic terms of winning enough seats to deny either the Republicans or Democrats the House majority. The Reformers hoped they’d be the kingmakers, by swinging their support to one party or the other in return for concessions. It didn’t turn out that way. No Reform Party House candidates won a seat, either in 1996 or since.
Last year, the left-leaning Green Party, fielded 49 candidates in House races, which meant that in 386 districts there were no Green candidates.
In House races in which a Democrat, a Republican, and a Green candidate running, the best Green performance was in California’s’ 12th congressional district (which includes parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County), where Green contender Pat Gray garnered 9 percent of the vote, losing to Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos.
Lessons of history
A non-presidential election year is a difficult time to launch or expand a third-party movement. That wasn’t always the case, says Richard Winger, an expert on election law and editor of Ballot Access News.
“Back in the days when the United States had more flexible laws, and powerful parties did arise from time to time, those developments usually happened in the middle of election years (even-numbered years),” Winger said.
He noted that in May of 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which legalized slavery in territories which had formerly been closed to slavery. In response, a new party opposed to the extension of slavery, the Republican Party, was born on July 6, 1854.
The Republicans went on to win more House seats than any other party in the fall 1854 elections. And just six years later, a Republican presidential candidate -- Abraham Lincoln -- won the White House.
Getting on the ballot was easier in the early part of the 20th century than it now is for new parties and their presidential candidates.
In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, displeased with the policies of his successor, President William Howard Taft, waited until August to form a new party, the Progressive Party. Winger points out the Progressive Roosevelt still got on the ballot in 45 of the 48 states, won six states and won more popular votes than Taft. The Progressives elected nine House members.
Restrictive ballot access laws and the mainstream news media’s near-exclusive focus on the two major parties make it hard for a third party to ignite an electoral prairie fire.
Comparison to 1990s
Assessing the current disaffection with the two parties, Rob Richie, executive director of a group called Fair Vote, the Center for Voting and Democracy, said, “as of now, there is nothing like the climate of 1990-1994 when Perot ran so well” and independents were elected as governors in Connecticut, Maine and Alaska.
But, he added, “That might change, particularly if someone like John McCain said he'd run as an independent rather than try to win the GOP nomination. But I think that a lot of ‘leaning’ independents (e.g., people who don't have great affection for either party, but really dislike one of the parties) see the choice between the major parties as significant enough that they don't want to ‘waste their vote’ on ‘spoilers.’”
The biggest barrier third party candidates face, according to Richie, is the winner-take-all voting system which most states and cities use.
Richie’s group favors an instant runoff system in which voters would rank candidates in order of their preference. To win, a candidate would need to get a majority (50 percent plus one). If no majority winner emerged from the first round of voting, the top two candidates would go to a run-off in which voter’s second-choice preferences would determine the winner.
This would help third-party candidates such as Nader. A voter could back Nader in Round One, confident that if Nader lost, the voter’s vote in the instant runoff would be awarded to his second-choice candidate, likely a Democrat. No state has yet adopted such a system, although San Francisco and Burlington, Vt. have.