On the Subject of Third Parties: Why They Fail

On the Subject of Third Parties: Why They Fail

Eric Lendrum, Politics Contributor

There are plenty of reasons (especially in modern times) as to why the two main parties have survived against a handful of strong third-party challengers. Some of the more obvious ones are in relation to their overall structure: their sheer size, various machinery at the federal and local levels, fundraising capabilities, name-recognition, etc.

However, there is another main reason why third parties continue to be foiled by the two main parties. It’s a theory that I call “Adaptation Theory.” Basically, I consider Adaptation Theory to be the idea that, when a third party performs exceptionally well in an election, the party that still ultimately wins turns to mimicking some of that third party candidate’s most popular ideas, so as to earn those third party voters and subsequently prevent the possibility of that same party returning.

This theory is strongly exemplified in the single greatest performance by a third-party candidate in American history: The 1912 election. Theodore Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party and their nominee William Howard Taft, and formed his own party called the Progressive, or “Bull Moose” Party. This party featured a number of Democratic and Republican ideas, all under the general banner of progressive and populist themes. It included women’s suffrage, tariff reductions, and further cracking down on trusts. Although Roosevelt didn’t win, he came in a strong second with 88 electoral votes – 11 times the amount won by Taft – and was enough to convince the victor, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, to adopt and/or further emphasize some of these ideas that weren’t already Democratic priorities: Wilson passed women’s suffrage, signed the Underwood Tariff into law (lowering many tariffs and making up for the lost money by imposing the federal income tax), and enacted the Federal Trade Commission to further regulate trusts in a more effective manner than previous “trust-busting” efforts.

Another example of this theory is present in the dying days of the era of segregation, and the last-minute staunch opposition to it among Democrats. In 1948, with both major parties beginning to show signs of supporting civil rights and desegregation, Democrat Strom Thurmond ran as a third-party “Dixiecrat” against both Republican Thomas Dewey and incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman, running almost entirely on his opposition to integration. He came in a strong third place, with 4 states and 39 electoral votes, all from the South. Subsequently, the Democrats went back to being a bit more lukewarm on civil rights, even nominating an outright segregationist, John Sparkman, as the running mate of nominee Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Moves such as these quieted the pro-segregation wing of the Democratic Party until the movement finally began to die off with the civil rights advances of Kennedy.

As such, the last few notable third-party performances may seem to be exceptions to Adaptation Theory, but for unique reasons on an individual basis. By the time of Democrat-turned-American Independent George Wallace’s run in 1968, the tide was so overwhelmingly against segregation and in favor of civil rights, on both sides, that neither party was likely to cave, despite him outperforming Thurmond’s run 20 years prior. His campaign was run on a more state-by-state basis, appealing to those hardcore Southern states that were the last ones to fall in the fight to preserve segregation – thus, because his campaign was deliberately based more on individual states rather than a larger populist tone, there was no reason for the victor, Richard Nixon, to copy anything he did.

And then there’s the most recent one: Ross Perot in 1992. This one is an anomaly in several ways. Despite the usual narrative that he was simply a spoiler for Bush, Perot actually took away just as many voters from Clinton as he did from the 41st President, as his base all across the board was more moderate on a lot of issues. This can ultimately be attributed more to the fact that he simply ran on the theme of being an outsider and a non-politician, and as such remained deliberately – and frustratingly – ambiguous on the specific issues. Thus, there was no clear way in which the victor, Bill Clinton, could legitimately imitate Perot’s main appeals, since Clinton obviously never was a political outsider, and since it’s pretty hard to mimic having no policy positions.

But nevertheless, Adaptation Theory is still very relevant even today, despite third parties never performing as well as in 1912. This same theory could be seen in the 2016 Democratic primaries, where Senator Bernie Sanders ran a fine line between running as a Democrat and running as an Independent. He brought just enough new ideas to the table to justify running against the party establishment, while also being similar enough that he could credibly run for this party rather than just burst out the gate as an independent candidate, Ross Perot-style. And sure enough, with Sanders performing stronger than expected, it was only all-too obvious that eventual nominee Hillary Clinton would eventually adopt some of his more radical policies, such as raising the federal minimum wage, moderating on the Israeli-“Palestinian” conflict, and acknowledgment of “global warming.”

Thus, like an ocean predator migrating to warmer waters, or a musician changing to the latest popular genre, the two parties have thrived for so long because they have both mastered the imitation game. They take advantage of the fact that third parties usually fail their first runs – even if they come close – and subsequently mirror their most popular positions in order to ensure that they never arise again due to being robbed of their strongest ideological ammunition.

You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26.

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