We Need Party Reform, Not a Third Party

Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz in 2016 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Former Starbucks executive Howard Schultz isn’t likely to make history as the first successful third-party presidential candidate.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is expressing interest in a run for president as an independent. This would be a very hard thing to do successfully. Put aside whether he is the right candidate for voters, or would adopt the right issue positions to win them over. There are crucial structural barriers that interfere with successful third-party candidacies.

To appreciate this, let’s start with some history. There has never been a successful third-party run in American history, at least not when the two major parties were functioning properly. One could say that Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 was a “third-party” victory, or you might argue that John Quincy Adams’s success in 1824 was likewise. But I think it is better to understand those elections as a consequence of the collapse of the existing party structure.

Both Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot launched strong third-party runs (TR in 1912, Perot in 1992). Neither won more than a third of the popular vote. TR won only 88 electoral votes, and Perot won none. These are the closest any third-party candidate has come.

If Schultz does not have history on his side, the math of 2020 does not look too much better, either. In the 2016 election, some 69 percent of all voters identified with one party or another. Moreover, one party or another was very close to a majority in many crucial states — California (55 electoral votes), New York (29 electoral votes), and Illinois (20 electoral votes) all sport Democratic near-majorities. Republicans tend not to have such a lock on any large states, but smaller states in the Deep South and the Great Plains are solidly locked into the GOP. That means Schultz would have to win over partisans of one side or the other — in truth, he would probably have to do a bit of both — if he hopes to win an Electoral College majority.

And what if he splits the Electoral College vote, such that no candidate has a majority? In that case, the election would go to the House of Representatives, in which each state caucus gets a single vote. Again, this is not propitious for Schultz. After all, the two parties dominate Congress even more than they do the electorate — how could he persuade Democratic or Republican politicians to vote for him? Each state caucus might be obliged to vote for the candidate who won the most votes in its state — but that simply re-creates the problem he faces in the first place: There are too many strongly partisan states.

So, it is a very unlikely outcome. And yet Schultz is not wrong that we are terribly served by the two-party system today. That raises the question: Why does it remain so powerful, despite its manifest flaws?

The reason gets to the structure of American elections themselves. Political scientist Maurice Duverger observed that party systems tend to be downstream of electoral systems. The United States does not have a system of proportional representation whereby a party that wins, say, 5 percent of the vote gets 5 percent of the legislative seats. Instead, our system is single-member districts where (for the most part) plurality rules. This creates a tendency to winnow the parties down to two major ones. It is not a universal rule; Britain, for instance, has elections similar to ours, but several parties. But it is a strong pattern: Because the losing side gets nothing in a winner-take-all system, voters recognize that they stand the best chance if they form alliances on the left or the right. Defections from this system are kept down by fear of “wasting” one’s vote. Sure, if everybody votes for a third party, no votes will be wasted, but vote choices are made on an individual basis.

This is why I strongly favor an emphasis on party reform as opposed to a third-party challenge. Neither party does a good job of behaving responsibly. Instead, they seem to be most sensitive to the views of privileged interest groups and activists occupying the ideological fringe. This keeps them from advocating a salable and sensible program in the true public interest. Unfortunately, a third-party challenge is extremely unlikely to break this pattern of irresponsibility. Instead, internal reforms of party structures are the way to go.

Nothing is ever a sure thing in life, but even if Schultz spent his whole fortune on a campaign, I would be very surprised to see him win.

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