Third parties can be helpful, No Labels isn’t - GulfToday

Third parties can be helpful, No Labels isn’t


Representational image.

Jonathan Bernstein, Tribune News Service

A group called “No Labels” is moving ahead with the possibility of running a third-party candidate for president next year — at least if Donald Trump and Joe Biden are the major party nominees. Democrats are livid at the prospect, concerned that such an effort is more likely to help Trump. Based on some of the big names and money involved, some Democrats are even convinced that it’s a deliberate plot to deliver the election to Republicans. Polling shows that neither Biden nor Trump is especially popular — and that many voters say they would consider a third option. So what’s wrong with what No Labels is doing?

To begin with, don’t take those polls seriously. A lot of people will say they want a third option — it’s easy to imagine that the new choice will follow one’s preferences down the line. But in the end any real candidate, with real policy positions, immediately alienates a large part of the potential voting pool because they’ll wind up advocating policies unpopular with lots of people. It’s inevitable because there just isn’t a large pool of independent voters with identical, or even similar, policy preferences.

What’s more, there are fewer available voters than some polling might suggest. Partisan polarisation in the electorate is real. Even though many of us will say that we’re independents, most independents are actually pretty loyal to one of the major parties. And campaigns next year will reinforce partisanship. While the evidence shows that efforts to change someone’s vote has very limited effects, political scientists have found that electioneering is very effective at providing people with good reasons for doing what they were almost certainly going to do in the first place. So while nothing is impossible, there are good reasons to believe that in terms of election outcomes the only real thing that a third-party candidate can do is play the spoiler, helping one major-party candidate and hurting the other.

Contrary to Democratic fears, it’s far from certain which party a No Labels candidate would hurt, given that we have no idea who the candidate would be, what their platform would be (beyond the vague generalisations the organisations has published so far), and no idea how — and where — the candidate would campaign. A Democratic politician who campaigns as a moderate abortion-rights supporter and wants incremental increases in gun control measures, and then spends most of their time in lean-Democratic states? That’s a disaster for Biden. But a Republican who emphasises Second Amendment rights, balancing the budget, and spends most of his time in lean-Republican states? That’s very different.

I’m not sure which is worse, a campaign that deliberately mirrors one of the national parties in order to try to elect the other one, or one that functions as a spoiler without even realizing it. Both are irresponsible. The former is what Democrats fear; the latter is what, if we take them at their word, No Labels appears to be — just blundering through national politics, mistakenly believing they could win a presidential election and not realising that they could easily affect the results. Remember, close elections aren’t unusual and with elections as close as those in 2000 and 2016, it doesn’t take many third-party votes to potentially change the outcome.

So is a responsible third-party (or independent) candidacy possible in the US, under current conditions? Yes. Third parties have been able in the past to raise awareness of policy options — or completely new issues — that neither major party will address. Find one of those and a party would be off to a good start. (1) Be realistic. It’s very likely that one of the major parties is closer to the third party’s preferences and a responsible campaign would do what it takes to avoid electing the other party. That might entail campaigning mainly in non-competitive states, perhaps not even appearing on the ballot in potential swing states, especially those that are must-win for their preferred candidate.

Potential third parties might also consider building from the ground up. There are plenty of city council and state legislative seats in areas where the major parties have little presence. Running candidates for those positions would be more fruitful than a national campaign that has little chance of success. They might also consider taking political scientist Lee Drutman’s advice and push for reforms that could give them real clout, such as fusion rules in which multiple parties can support the same candidate.

In other words, there are both short- and long-term ways to run responsible third-party or independent campaigns that can make positive contributions to the political system. And it doesn’t appear that No Labels intends to do any of those things.

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