A First Past the Post election system require regional concentration and local clout, and that’s why it is very strange when third parties in the United States ignore state and local politics and try to win the presidency.
The UK general election of 2015 is a good illustration of this. UKIP won 4 million votes across the country, but since that vote was dispersed across the entire country, the party only won one seat. In contrast, the Scottish National Party only focused on the 59 seats in Scotland. With 1.5 million votes it won 56 of them. Subsequently it lost two seats to scandals, bringing the current SNP tally to 54.
The UK has multi-party politics already, where in earlier parliamentary sessions the Liberal Democrats have gathered around 50 seats each time, like the SNP did in Scotland. They did so by concentrating their vote, just like the SNP did. In addition to the “three main” parties of earlier years, you had a plethora of smaller parties from The Greens to DUP to SDLP. In earlier elections, the SNP had around six seats.
In the USA the party structure is far more rigid, with only two contenders for seats – the Democrats and the Republicans. These two parties have an extensive organisation, and entrenched bastions, in every state of the Union and in the country’s territories. Still, each election cycle brings speculation that a third-party will generate enough buzz, but they never do.
This year the buzz is about the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and about the Green candidate Jill Stein. In 2012 the Internet went wild for Ron Paul, who stumbled already in the Republican primaries and withdrew his candidacy on May 8th when there were still 11 contests to go.
If one looks at history, this will be the fate of Stein and Johnson as well. The only time in recent memory when a Third Party candidate came close to winning was in 1992 when Ross Perot won 18.9 per cent of the popular vote, or 19.7 million votes. That cost the republicans the Presidency. George Bush the elder was dismissed after only one term, and a certain Governor from Arkansas by the name of Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.
The last time the Greens made any impact, it was for negative reasons. Conventional wisdom blames Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s loss to George Bush Jr. in 2000. This is of course unfair because in a democracy, nobody owns votes. The Democrats don’t own their voters, and as with this year, if the party present sub-optimal candidates, it is the party that is to blame.
Nader’s Green Party won 2.7 per cent of the vote that year, and became vilified by Democrats for “costing Al Gore the presidency”. Gore actually won the popular vote with 48.4% versus Bush’s 47.9 per cent, or translated into votes 51 million votes versus 50.4. However, since the USA has a system of an electoral college, Bush won more delegates despite losing the popular vote. Therefore he won the presidency.
But what is it that keeps third parties coming? Why do these third parties insist on capturing a political position that, if they did indeed win it, would make for a certain one-term presidency? Without support from the House and the Senate, a President from a Third Party would be a lame-duck one for the entire four-year term.
Such a scenario would be extremely damaging to the third-party that achieved this, and the gridlock would be blamed on the President from that third-party. The only reason I can think of, and this is a personal speculation that I don’t have full cover for, is that a Presidency is a trophy that would help down-ticket races, eventually. Winning the presidency would raise the third party’s profile above background noise, and federal funds would flow to that party.
But, and this is the personal value judgment that you may choose to overlook entirely here, this is cheating. This is short-term thinking, and it’s cutting corners. This is UKIP thinking where they try to capture seats across the whole country instead of focusing on one region.
Third parties don’t win because they’re invisible to voters in their local environments. Trying to capture the presidency before establishing a structure in local politics leads to the same result every time. In the UK as well as in the US. It’s in the nature of First Past the Post.
For a third-party to win a presidency, it will have to spend the next ten years extending itself across an entire region that’s sympathetic to it. It has to capture a fair chunk of Congress. Only then will voters consider the party credible for the highest political office in the land.