The rise of the dark horse
By Steven Martinovich
It's a familiar storyline: It's an election year and Americans are tired of the two main political parties, their constant bickering and inability to solve the nation's problems. Poll after poll shows that many in the electorate would be willing to vote for a third party candidate if they believed there was a real chance of success. This candidate would have to magically bridge the divide between left and right and offer real solutions to the issues which concern the American family and its 2.4 children. In short, a pie in the sky dream for people perpetually displeased with the status quo.
Except, argues Douglas Schoen, it isn't so pie in the sky. His fascinating entry into this year's political debate, Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System, asserts that American is ready to elect a credible third party candidate. Where Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, John Anderson and Ross Perot tried and failed before, someone in 2008 and the future could mount a serious run and do more than place third. All this candidate has to do is avoid politics as usual and provide unique solutions to the nation's problems, utilize the modern tools of communication available to them and develop deep and wide grassroots support.
Schoen believes that there is a broad segment of the American electorate that such a candidate would appeal to; one he calls the "Restless and Anxious Moderates" – his proxy for the independent, non-affiliated voter. They are approximately 35-40 per cent of the electorate – growing potentially to half of all voters if the Democrat-Republican impasse continues, centrist and middle-class. Several times in the past they have swung the balance in elections by granting victories to Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Schoen's quick glance at recent history would suggest that third party candidates are doomed to failure. Wallace, Anderson and Perot all enjoyed strong support, the last even topping the polls briefly, before their campaigns collapsed. Schoen argues, however, that several factors undid their candidacies including poor organization, a lack of money, media refusal to allow their participation in debates and an onerous process to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
With the advent of the information age, he argues, many of the obstacles have been removed. Ron Paul, essentially a third party candidate running for the Republican nomination, raised an extraordinary amount of money through his web site. Thanks to the internet a campaign can organize across the country easily and the electorate can be contacted quickly and inexpensively via email, as Howard Dean proved in 2000. Significant issues remain, most notably ballot access and debate participation, but Schoen believes an increasingly independent-minded electorate will force change in those areas as well.
Is America actually ready to give a third party candidate a serious look in 2008 or beyond? Their support seems to ebb and flow in loose relationship with how cantankerous the electorate is. Though there isn't likely a serious third party threat this election year – surprising given the dissatisfaction with the three who could become president, Congress and the Bush administration – there are credible contenders for 2012. Shoen is probably right when he argues that an independent candidate with a compelling platform, one that somehow manages to straddle the liberal-conservative divide, could surpass the efforts of Roosevelt, Wallace, Anderson and Perot.
Unfortunately Declaring Independence itself isn't quite as independent as Schoen, who consulted extensively for Bill Clinton, would have you believe. While he preaches to both sides of the aisle – an independent candidate wouldn't have a chance concentrating on either the left or right – the issues he has identified are overwhelmingly liberal in nature. To earn victory today a candidate should focus their attention on issues which include health care, education, the environment, campaign finance. The sops he throws to the right are national security and a nebulous approach to immigration. A conservative wouldn't be blamed if they thought Schoen's efforts were designed to promote policies antithetical to the right even while he hopes Republican voters cross over. The history of third party candidates also reveals few to be reliably conservative.
Whether a third party candidate can win the presidency is likely a question that only posterity can answer. Although the public has occasionally been infatuated with one, they have inevitably turned back towards one of the two main parties. As Schoen points out, that doesn't mean they haven't had an effect thanks to their ability to force other candidates to address ignored issues – as Perot managed in 1992. It's probably too early to declare the beginning of the end of the two-party system but Declaring Independence does raise a number of issues that both parties would be wise to take note of, including providing solutions based on reality rather than those based on political calculation.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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