Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen have been unsparing critics of Barack Obama over the last couple of years, but their Wall Street Journal piece today must have them smiling in the White House. Caddell and Schoen argue, based on polling and focus groups they’ve conducted, that there’s a high probability that a third-party candidate will run for president in 2012. If they’re right, it can only help Barack Obama get reelected, because in an environment permeated with dissatisfaction with the incumbent, a third-party candidate will almost certainly be a second anti-Obama alternative for voters, with no chance of winning but an outside chance of depriving the GOP of victory.
Whoever would be helped, one thing is certain: It wouldn’t be the voters, or the American political system, or even the third-party candidate himself, who would only be indulging himself but accomplishing nothing durable. The most surprising thing about Caddell and Schoen’s article is how indifferent they are — two such old pros couldn’t be ignorant of it — to the fixed binary quality of partisan competition in America. Thanks to such things as plurality (first-past-the-post) voting, single-member legislative districts, and the structure of the Electoral College, third-party and “independent” candidates for the presidency are doomed. They can’t win, and they can’t even place second. No amount of poll-measured dissatisfaction with the two parties can change that as long as each of the two parties avoids an internal meltdown. Caddell and Schoen’s argument that “the political order as we know it is deteriorating and disintegrating” is the most evidence-free claim you will read between now and the return of Barack Obama from Martha’s Vineyard.
Caddell and Schoen cite the campaigns of John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992, each of whom “garnered high levels of public support.” Phooey. On Election Day, how many electoral votes did each man get? Zero. Every single vote cast for them was a complete waste, if it didn’t actually accomplish the reverse of the voter’s intent. In Anderson’s case there was not even a secondary effect of measurably harming one of the major candidates. In Perot’s case, there was probably some harm done to George H. W. Bush’s reelection. Some achievement.
If Caddell and Schoen want to go back to school on the basics, let me recommend E.E. Schattschneider’s 1942 book Party Government, now back in print. Schattschneider, who had some goofy Wilsonian ideas about “responsible parties” and who loathed the separation of powers, nevertheless had a firm grasp on the reality of two-party dynamics. (Just read chapters 3 and 4, guys.) A political party, he observed, is “an organized attempt to get power.” Every party has its roots in a legislative assembly, as a mode of organizing the members for control of legislative outcomes. The struggle for control in a legislature naturally resolves itself into a binary choice unless some electoral conditions dictate additional choices — and here in America all the electoral conditions reinforce the binary tendency.
Were it not for the congressional parties, in short, there would hardly be any need for presidents and presidential candidates to have any partisan affiliation at all. It follows therefore that any independent or “third-party” presidential candidacy is actually a top-down effort to impose some extra-partisan fantasy alternative on a two-party legislative reality. Reality will win every time. This is why Schattschneider observed that “minor parties” are not genuine parties at all, and that “no minor party in American history has ever become a major party, and no major party has ever become a minor party.”
Caddell and Schoen fudge like mad when they say “the tea party movement is functioning as a quasi-third party already.” The Tea Party is not a party, does not function in the least like one, and for all its considerable influence will never become a party without destroying itself. The Tea Party’s day will pass, because it represents an electoral mood that the two parties must choose either to embrace or to reject. The Republicans are largely embracing it, and the Democrats rejecting it. One day not too far in the future we’ll evaluate the Tea Party’s impact. But the Republicans and the Democrats will still be here, and no third alternative that emerges in 2012 will be. Count on it.