Presidency Dreaming: Third Parties Need To Sober Up and Face Reality

Ralph Nader seems to be peddling two distinct messages on the campaign trail. The first, tried and true, rails against both Democrats and Republicans alike as being corporate pawns, insensitive to the plight of the common American. There is little difference between the two political parties, and the only vote for change will be for a vote for Independent Ralph Nader, or so the logic goes. As it is, no one actually believes this, including Nader himself. There are substantial differences between the parties, and this election looks to be nearly as contentious as the last. Which brings us to Nader’s other message, that he will deliver a softball campaign aimed at influencing John Kerry’s agenda but will not campaign aggressively in battleground states.

Regardless of what Nader does, his impact this time around will be minimal at best but nonetheless could be a deciding factor. Early signs indicate widespread opposition from virtually everyone except Karl Rove. In an opinion piece for the New York Times dated April 12, 2004 Howard Dean laid it out point blank, “Voting for Ralph Nader, or for any third-party candidate for president, means a vote for a candidate who has no realistic shot of winning the White House.” The title of the article? “For Ralph Nader, but Not for President”.

Another ominous sign came April 5 at a Portland rally. Under Oregon state law any presidential candidate can gain ballot access if they host an event with over 1,000 people. Pundits expected Nader to leap over this hurdle, citing a 2001 event that attracted 7,000 paying supporters. Nader’s take this time around was a paltry 741, forcing him to gather the full 15,000 signatures usually required under state law.

Nader is down for the count, and it is extremely unlikely that any third party contenders will make a dent in the 2004 Presidential race. Yet in 2000 there was some illusion that third party candidates could break ground. The final results were sobering indeed. After long and serious campaigns Ralph Nader received 2.74 percent of the vote, while his closest competitor, Patrick Buchanan, won .42 percent. One major setback foreshadowed these results. The nonpartisan (in effect, bipartisan) Commission on Presidential Debates established a new rule in 2000, the unrealistic requirement of 15 percent support in national polls to be featured in television debates, guaranteeing of course that none of the candidates were heard from.

If in place in 1992 this rule would have eliminated Ross Perot from the television debates and marginalized his candidacy, given that Perot was polling less than 10 percent a week before the first debate. He would have fared far worse than the 18.88 percent popular vote that he ultimately received. If focusing on Nader and Buchanan seems purely academic, consider that former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was only polling 10 percent before participating in the televised gubernatorial debates and ultimately winning office with only 37 percent of the vote. Without a presence in the television debates, Nader and Buchanan were not taken seriously and it proved impossible for them to reach the five percent popular vote needed to gain partial public financing for the 2004 general election.

Skip ahead to 2004. There are no independent parties eligible for public financing (although Nader appears to have secured federal matching funds for campaign donations), and the 15 percent popular vote television requirement remains elusive as ever. The third parties are puttering around with scattered local races across the country but evidence of real growth is difficult to find. Part of the new political landscape seems to be that the presidency is temporarily (if not permanently) out of reach for third parties.

It is a waste of time and resources for Ralph Nader to run for president. He will not even be helping the Green Party this time around. The most he can hope for is lip service from the Democratic Party and possibly a minor cabinet post, if he isn’t assassinated first. Now is not the time for third parties to give up, however. Third parties can make a difference by forgetting about the presidency for the time being and focusing on three long-term goals: the election of high profile politicians to esteemed positions (e.g., House or Senate), the further development of party platforms, and running candidates in local and state elections where the respective parties have a stronghold.

The first part of this equation should be plainly obvious. There are several national third party politicians that are widely respected and should already be serving in government. Take Pat Buchanan for instance. Buchanan is an esteemed journalist and television commentator, he was an advisor to both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and he sought the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996, in 1996 even winning the New Hampshire primary. In 2000, Buchanan left the Republican Party and “hijacked” the Reform Party for a third party run. Bottom line: Buchanan is a fighter. He is willing to take large risks for what he believes in. There is no reason to think he could not be successful in a Congressional run, perhaps for Senate in his home state of Virginia.

Ralph Nader has an equal, if not greater, sway in American politics and could realistically get elected somewhere on the Left Coast. Other potential third party stars could include 2000 Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, conservative also-ran Alan Keyes, “10 Commandments” judge Roy Moore, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. If any of these politicians were elected, it could mean a groundswell of support for third parties (at least on a regional level) and access to untapped donor money on the national level.

Another way in which third parties can tilt the odds is to take another, harder look at their respective party platforms. The political landscape is much more hostile to third parties than even four years ago, and it might very well be time to look at pragmatic ways to increase party support, perhaps by jettisoning ideas that do not play well on a national level, and never will. For the Constitution Party and the Green Party any changes might be completely off the table. They are, in a way, ideologically pure versions of the major parties, what Democrats and Republicans would be if they didn’t have to compromise. Indeed, it could be argued that any changes would negate the reason for these parties in the first place.

The Libertarian Party is a different story, however. The Libertarians could gouge off large segments of both the Left and the Right if they were to make a more coherent argument on two core issues, drugs and prostitution. The American public is simply unwilling to accept that these two vices should be completely unregulated, and why should they? Even most Libertarians don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. The Libertarian Party should hold a constitutional convention and let its members decide on whether the current platform is one of success or whether it needs to be tweaked.

Finally, the parties should focus all of their financial and political resources on getting people on the ballot, fielding people in every race from top to bottom. Part of this strategy should be a focus on regional development. For example, the Greens should target California, Oregon, and Washington. The Libertarians might try for Alaska, Arizona, and New Hampshire. The Constitution Party would obviously devote its resources primarily to southern states. The third parties will never be national parties if they cannot organize enough to make a difference in their own backyard. And Ralph Nader? Instead of dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain, why doesn’t Ralph use his speaking fees and donor lists to rebuild the Green Party? Or, better yet, why not create a new party that would actually be electable, centrist in the vein of Ross Perot’s Reform Party?

Third parties often forget that every vote must be earned, they are not delivered on a silver platter. All too often, a message is sent that a third party vote is a vote against the major parties, as if that in itself deserves a vote. Major party disillusionment is all fine and good, but the message needs to change. The parties need to convince voters that their party makes the most sense, plain and simple. The parties will not convince people of this by running half-baked presidential campaigns but by getting their candidates elected to office and by doing the grunt work of party organization.

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(Published in May of 2004 by Right Turn, an independent right-leaning University of Washington publication. The original piece had been edited due to space concerns. I am re-publishing here with the original title and full text. This revised version had also been published on OpinionEditorials.com but is no longer online).

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