Are Third Party Candidates Viable?

Given public unhappiness with the two major parties -- which seems almost to be a constant in our politics -- the question always arises as ...
by | November 2, 2009

Given public unhappiness with the two major parties -- which seems almost to be a constant in our politics -- the question always arises as to whether a third party could be viable. And political scientists and people like myself always say no.

With good reason. The way states let parties run the balloting, pretty much, makes it hard for third party candidates even to qualify. And obviously third or minor party candidates lack the institutional infrastructure and the brand recognition that Republicans and Democrats have.

As a result, no independent has been elected governor for more than a decade, there are only a handful of third party legislators out of 7,400 nationwide and even Ross Perot, the most successful third party candidate in 80 years, who had untold gobs of money at his disposal and a distinct message, failed to carry a single state in 1992 or 1996.

But this year's races may complicate the story.

Hoffman Obviously, Exhibit A would be the emergence of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in tomorrow's special congressional election in upstate New York. Hoffman managed to force the GOP nominee out of the race and into the Democratic camp and now is favored to win the seat.

But Hoffman enjoyed a couple of advantages most minor party candidates don't. For one thing, although New York State's ballot access laws are as convoluted as any, they do make allowances for regular appearances by minor party candidates. So that got Hoffman on the ballot.

The other thing, of course, is that Hoffman enjoyed greater institutional support than most third party candidates could dream of. Not only did he get heavy financial support from groups like Club for Growth. His candidacy became nearly a litmus test for potential 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls to show their conservative bona fides. Endorsements from the likes of Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty aren't likely to fall on many third party candidate shoulders. (Instead, there will clearly be an even stronger push to make sure that Republican nominees leave no room to their right.)

The other key independent candidacy this year is Chris Daggett's in New Jersey. As is clear to anyone who follows politics by this point, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is enormously unpopular. But his money and the lack of much of a campaign strategy on the part of GOP nominee Chris Christie beyond "I ain't him" have kept him in contention.

The unpopularity of the two major party candidates opened the door wide open to a serious independent challenger, which Daggett is. Polling about a week ago showed him on the rise, peaking at about 20 percent. But Daggett has slipped since then.

He has almost no money and therefore has not been able to take advantage of the opportunity that was opened to him. He has lost momentum just as he needs it. If he could somehow have climbed up into the 30s, he would have a real chance. People would think he could win, therefore he could win.

As it stands, people don't think he will win, so most people won't vote for him. Therein lies the rub for the minor party candidate.


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