Party Poopers

June 1, 2008

Third parties in America have rarely had it so rough. Ralph Nader's perennial race for president, a lightning rod for idealists in 2000 and the object of left-wing scorn in 2004, this year became a clownish sideshow. "Irrelevant at any speed," read one headline. On the right, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul stole the Libertarian Party's fire; his free-market, antiwar manifestos at the GOP debates helped rake in exponentially more money, volunteers, and media attention than any Libertarian Party candidate ever had. Together, the candidates forced even radicals to wonder whether third parties have outlived their usefulness.

Of course, third parties can still have an impact, even if they don't actually win elections. In his doctoral thesis, "Life of the Party or Just the Third Wheel?" Daniel J. Lee, a sixth-year graduate student in political science, showed that third parties forced the major parties to court their activists. In Congressional districts where third parties could easily get their candidates on the ballot, Lee found that Republicans and Democrats exhibited more pronounced policy differences, even when third-party candidates didn't run—that they might is what mattered. "It's all about the threat," Lee says. "The major parties strategically anticipate the potential for third-party challengers."

Viewed this way, Paul's GOP presidential race resembled a third-party bid. He'd already sought the presidency on the 1988 Libertarian Party ticket, and the threat that he might try it again created a libertarian pull on the Republican Party, Lee says. Still, the threat would have been less credible if Libertarian Party activists hadn't spent years building a volunteer corps and challenging restrictive ballot access laws.

"Having the state-sponsored parties decide who voters get to choose from is not right," says Duke political science professor Michael Munger, who is himself collecting signatures to qualify for a Libertarian Party bid in the North Carolina gubernatorial race. "I think that competition is always going to help make the parties more accountable." Munger now sees the most enthusiasm for third parties at the local level. In the South and Midwest, Republicans and Democrats alike often support capital punishment and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "Progressive activists are finding there's just nobody saying anything that they care about," Munger says. "They'd like to have a Ralph Nader at the state level." But, he adds, that doesn't mean they want to see him making any more noise in Washington. "They are worried about losing."