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Monday, July 25, 2011

Third Party Time?

In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes:

Thanks to a quiet political start-up that is now ready to show its hand, a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention, is going to emerge in 2012. I know it sounds gimmicky — an Internet convention — but an impressive group of frustrated Democrats, Republicans and independents, called Americans Elect, is really serious, and they have thought out this process well. In a few days, Americans Elect will formally submit the 1.6 million signatures it has gathered to get on the presidential ballot in California as part of its unfolding national effort to get on the ballots of all 50 states for 2012.

The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open — guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.

“Our goal is to open up what has been an anticompetitive process to people in the middle who are unsatisfied with the choices of the two parties,” said Kahlil Byrd, the C.E.O. of Americans Elect, speaking from its swank offices, financed with some serious hedge-fund money, a stone’s throw from the White House.

As the group explains on its Web site, “Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process. We’re using the Internet to give every single voter — Democrat, Republican or independent — the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012. The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.”

Similar ideas have been kicking around for some time. In 2005, Ronald Brownstein wrote:

Once it took years of heavy spending on direct mail and other recruitment methods to build a national membership organization;, the online liberal advocacy group, acquired half a million names -- with virtually no investment -- just months after posting an Internet petition opposing President Clinton's impeachment in 1998.

MoveOn, and groups like it on the left and right, chisel at the power of the major political parties by providing an alternative source of campaign funds and volunteers. But otherwise, the two parties that have defined American political life since the 1850s have been largely immune from the centrifugal current of the Internet era.

Joe Trippi, a principal architect of Howard Dean's breakthrough Internet strategy in the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, is one of many analysts who believe that may soon change. The Internet, he says, could ignite a serious third-party presidential bid in 2008.

"This is a very disruptive technology," says Trippi. "And it is going to be very destabilizing to the political establishment of both parties."

The Internet could allow an independent candidate to more easily identify an audience and financial base, just as it has allowed blogs like the liberal Daily Kos or conservative InstaPundit to find a community of like-minded readers. More precisely, the Internet has allowed readers to find those blogs. And because the audience mostly finds the product, rather than the other way around, the cost of entering the market is radically reduced.

Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively. "Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he says.

Nevertheless, the obstacles to a third party are steep. As we explain in our chapter on political parties, access to the ballot is not automatic and requires costly petition campaigns or legal battles. Though many Americans say that they like the idea of a third party in the abstract, actual support on the ballot tends to be much lower. Despite a double-digit share of the popular vote in 1992, Ross Perot did not win a single electoral vote, thus illustrating another obstacle: the electoral college, which makes life difficult for third parties that do not have a regional base. When people regard third parties as mere spoilers, they hold their noses and opt for one of the major parties.