With the general election cycle in full swing and the two most hated major party nominees in living memory, Google is hopping with search queries about alternate options.
Gary Johnson polls at an undisputed third place in the national polls, but envies the serious prospects of Evan McMullin for winning a state of his own.
Darrell Castle is a little depressed that a party he helped to found and run since 1992 is being blown out of the water by an independent who came out of nowhere.
And Jill Stein… Jill Stein. She would have something to say to the disaffected Bernie people, but the WiFi gave her cancer.
With all this action and the chronic disappointments that are the two major party nominees, talk is more rampant than ever of a serious dynamic shift in our two-party way of life. Will we see a third party rise out of obscurity to national prominence? Will an Electoral College gridlock trigger a never-before-tested constitutional mechanism for choosing the next President?
Hi, I’m your resident certified nerd who stayed awake at night wondering about the answers to these questions before they were relevant to this election, and I would love to educate everyone whose favorite hobby in high school wasn’t writing constitutions. So here we go.
The modern third party is an institution that hasn’t had much luck in America. Something to do with the structurally inevitable outcome Electoral College at the presidential level and the first-past-the-post (which is nerd speak for the one with the most votes wins) at every other level.
There really isn’t room in the American form of government for more than two parties at the presidential level, and centuries of long habit, powerful institutions, and entrenched interests make it basically impossible to have more than two parties at any other level. But that doesn’t answer the question that remains for this election:
Can a temporary surge in a third party have lasting consequences for the political system as we know it?
The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes.
The most obvious way for that to happen is linked to the not so pleasant side of third parties: the spoiler effect.
When more than two parties run in a given election, the votes cast for the third party have to come from somewhere. Maybe some of them come from people who wouldn’t have voted anyway, but generally most of them will come from people who otherwise would have voted for one of the major party candidates. For the Constitution Party, we are largely talking about disaffected Republicans for whom the Republican Party is too moderate. For the Green Party, we are talking about disaffected far-left Democrats. With the Libertarian Party, well, that’s complicated.
But the point remains, a vote for a third party is a vote that the nearest major party isn’t going to get. Despite the popular cliché that “a vote for anyone else is a vote for Hillary Clinton,” the math actually works out that a vote for anyone else is equal to half a vote for Hillary Clinton, assuming you would have been more likely to vote for Donald Trump out of the two.
Continued in Part 2, available here.