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April 25, 2005

Not So Fast

Ron Brownstein's article on the net's potential to facilitate a successful third-party ticket is going to break the buzz-meter, as it plays on everyone's favorite fantasies. But every few years there's a reason the third-party's will finally prove ascendent, be it Perot's personal funds or the net's ability to raise cash or the increasing similarities between the two major parties (not a view I subscribe to, by the way). But it never works. And Dean is a good example of why.

Dean for America followed the Brownstein strategy almost perfectly. It ran against the establishment and used the net to rake in cash from electrified supporters nationwide. It exploited recently developed online organizing tools to unleash a veritable army of foot-soldiers on unsuspecting towns nationwide, and then on suspecting towns when the Iowa caucus was happening. Entering the primaries it had more money and more volunteers than any other campaign, and by a large margin. But it still lost.

There's a tendency from pundits to view elections as very calculable affairs, with candidates requiring specific and predefined views on the issues, a smattering of personal qualities, a monetary advantage, and a clever organization to reach a guaranteed victory. Therefore, or so the thinking goes, if candidates who're even more charismatic and "right" on the issues could unshackle themselves from the chains of party politics and make up the financial disparity through the net, they could win.

It's harder than all that. Ballot access is insane. Getting yourself into the debates is tough. Convincing Americans you can win is endlessly hard. Withstanding accusations of a "Nader effect" is near impossible, particularly if you have a preference for which side should win if it's not you (and your involvement may hurt them). Matching the preexisting organizations the parties' have is a staggering task. Matching the region-specific help they get from candidates who've run there and politicians who've won there is similarly rough. And on, and on.

The party system doesn't just funnel cash, it's an enormous storehouse of expertise and experience, one that allows the candidate to concentrate on macrostrategy and his own campaigning. An independent could rely on none of that, and would face a withering attack from the candidates who could. Which is not to even mention that the major interest groups, from environmental to labor to NRA, aren't going to risk pissing off the parties to flirt with some independent candidacy.

I'm all for the thesis that the net makes insurgent candidacies more potent, because it does. But Brownstein and others trap themselves when they decide it's all about the money the net can raise and the supporters it can connect. The Democrats, through MoveOn, the blogs, and their own sites, have an enormously powerful online fundraising operation. The Republicans, through Bush's voter lists, have a similarly effective operation. And a third-party candidate, while he can now make more cash through the net than he could over the phone, won't be exploiting something the major parties are overlooking, and in any case will quickly find that money is the least of his problems. The two party system, for better or worse, is incredibly resilient, and the maturation of the internet is unlikely to shake it. Those wishing to change the political calculus would be better off using keyboard jockeys to changer their own parties, rather than form new ones.

April 25, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink

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» An opening? You mean a crack from The Q Speaks
Ronald Brownstein writes at the LA Times that the "Internet is a leveling force" that has created an opening for a third political party. I'll be perfectly frank--I did not read Brownstein's piece because I know it is stupid. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 25, 2005 10:30:25 PM

Comments

I could be wrong here, but, if I remember correctly. The centrist people that both parties always battle for are usually the types of people who are apathetic towards politics and, thus, the chance of igniting a political revolution via the middle of the spectrum is slight.

Posted by: steve c | Apr 25, 2005 1:39:29 PM

Wow. That was terrible. And probably the result of trying to rush off a thought while at work. So, allow me to rewrite my previous post...

Isn't the middle portion of the political spectrum generally comprised of people who tend to be politically apathetic? Therefore, the prospects of igniting a political revolution (third party in the U.S) by catering to the middle spectrum seems like a contradiction. Look at the current Republican Party's success, the party has not been fortified by sheparding the middle-of-the-ground folk to their tent, rather, and this pretty damn obvious, by appealing to the more radical people and interests.

Posted by: steve c. | Apr 25, 2005 1:47:08 PM

If the democrats stopped being so worthless we wouldn't need a third party. And maybe the next outsider will be more careful around a media chomping at the bit to destroy his/her campaign. He/she will have to keep an air-tight hold on every aspect of their campaign...like keeping the media from manipulating the sound so that a scream amidst a room full of screaming supporters isn't singled out and used to paint you as a lunatic.

Posted by: tony | Apr 25, 2005 2:33:40 PM

Nothing like a third party to hide those fixed votes! Yeah, I'm sure the Republicans will rub their hands with glee.

The Democrats need to get themselves together.

But. The alternative isn't just a third-party presidential candidate (a stupid idea - someone who has never done any of the real bottom-end work leading a party with no Congressional support.)

Creating a third party would have to happen from the ground up, starting in areas where the local Dems are moribund losers and there's no harm in fielding a credible third candidate, building up a few winners, then a few more, and then, finally, after many, many years, you can start thinking about fielding a presidential candidate.

That's what was wrong with Ralph Nader's campaign all along - he had no experience and no party to speak of, and it's why he should never be president.

Posted by: Avedon | Apr 25, 2005 8:48:06 PM

"Entering the primaries it had more money and more volunteers than any other campaign, and by a large margin."

I would add another wrinkle. Dean still had access to the party machine (such as it is). Now, while many (including myself) criticize the sorry state of state parties, the existance and relative quality of voter lists, turf cutting, etc is invaluable. A third party candidate would have to build all of that from scratch at great cost of money and time..

Posted by: Scott Pauls | Apr 25, 2005 8:57:09 PM

Scott -- Yeah, that was kinda my point ;)

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 25, 2005 9:47:23 PM

More signifigant I think is that our system itself is designed to promote the existence of 2 parties. Pretty much all of our votes are winner take all.

Parlimentary systems with proportional allocation of representatives tend to promote multiple parties. The upside is that you get to vote for a party that pretty closely mirrors your personal beliefs. The downside is that usually in order to form a governing coalition the parties have to make compromises after the vote takes place to bring in other parties.

In our system the parties have to make the compromises first, and then voters decide which compromise they like best.

I used to prefer the proportional method, but I have changed my mind in recent years.

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