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Sheri and Allan Rivlin Headshot

How Many 'Third Parties' Will There Be In 2012?

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Last weekend, comedian Roseanne Barr announced her candidacy for President of the United States of America. This bid is a bit more serious than the short lived candidacy of another comedian, Steven Colbert, earlier this year. Roseanne's plan is to use her celebrity to gain attention for the Green Party, before throwing her support to Jill Stein, the candidate she actually supports for the Green Party nomination which will be decided at the Green Party Convention in Baltimore in July. Roseanne's announcement will not be the last effort to capture headlines on political pages with "third party" bids in 2012 -- and we expect quite a few of them will reach the front pages as well.

The unusual pattern that emerged last year in the contest for the Republican nomination helps demonstrate how easy it has become to have a presidential campaign surge. With voters searching for alternatives, the media hungry for a new story, new online technologies facilitating communications among communities of likeminded supporters, and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision opening doors to sources of unlimited, nearly instant, infusions of campaign cash; many of the hurdles to quick campaign success have been lowered. If the remarkable pattern of monthly Republican frontrunner changes had structural reasons, then the pattern could be repeated in the general election campaign for president next fall, with potentially several minor party or independent candidates rising in the polls and at least for a few weeks onto center stage.

Voters Will Be Searching for Alternatives

Until the recent measured and perhaps ephemeral optimism, the economy has been struggling to gain any real traction and President Barack Obama is still barely breaking even in public assessments of his job performance as the Democratic standard bearer. Mitt Romney is still struggling in his negative-toned effort to secure the Republican nomination against a surging Rick Santorum. Against this backdrop no televised political conversation ends these days without the question "Do you think there will be a third party?" or the common variants: "Will Ron Paul run as a third party?" "Will there be a third party bid in the center, from the Tea Party, or from the Occupy Wall Street supporters?"

Our answer is a bold prediction: There will not be one "third party" candidate in 2012. There will be lots of minor party and independent candidates for president. Several of them may seem like a pretty big deal at least for a period of a few weeks in the long campaign cycle yet to unfold.

First a reminder about terminology: As we have noted, the term "third party" is nearly always a misnomer. There are far too many parties searching for votes in addition to the Democrats and Republicans for them all to be counted as "third" and quite often independent candidates make no effort to actually form a party. We expect it will be the numbers game that finally forces headline writers to abandon the "third party" cliché in favor of the more accurate term, "independent candidate" or as warranted, "Green Party candidate," "Libertarian Party candidate," "Socialist Party candidate," or simply, "candidate for president."

To ask if Ron Paul would run as a "third" party candidate is an insult to the Libertarian Party he represented in 1988, and to the many announced candidates for the Libertarian Party nomination in 2012 which will be decided at the Libertarian Party Convention in May. The question of whether Paul would seek the nomination he has held in the past is one we will leave to the political chatterers. But there is real value in the Libertarian Party Nomination, as well as the Green Party Nomination, and on the left, the Socialist Party USA, in the ability all have shown in gaining access to the ballots in all 50 states or at least several states. And getting on the ballot is what it's all about for independent and minor party candidates for president. There are many hurdles to for a presidential campaign to overcome, but for structural reasons, the game has changed, and many of the hurdles have been lowered.

A presidential campaign needs several things:

  1. A central rationale for voter's support
  2. Money: "the life blood of politics"
  3. The attention of the media
  4. A place in the debates
  5. Access to the ballot in as many states as possible

But the repeated surges in the contest for the Republican nomination demonstrate how most of these barriers have been lowered by structural changes to the machinery of campaigning in 2012. The first of these is lower to the degree that voters are clearly dissatisfied with the choices they have, as they clearly have been for a year with Mitt Romney as the Republican frontrunner and the cast of other hopefuls. It does not take much imagination to see voters may be disappointed with a face-off between President Obama and Romney if he wins the Republican nomination.

After the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case there are many ways to raise campaign money in a hurry, from a single large donation from a billionaire or corporation to fundraising online. All campaigns also now have access to the internet-based techniques pioneered in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and perfected in the Obama campaign in 2008 for communicating with supporters and raising money quickly through "crowd sourcing" also known as "money bombs."

The surge and bust cycle of the Republican primaries shows how much appetite the media has for the new story, so any independent campaign can expect press attention to turn their way whenever there is a lull in other news. "Why Not X?" stories will become commonplace for a few weeks until the Opposition Research surfaces from any campaigns that feel threatened by the surging independent candidate and then the press will be just as delighted to write "Here's Why Not X" stories.

There is time for this cycle to repeat several times between now and November. There could be a boomlet in the spring for one independent candidate followed by a surge for another "third party" bid in early summer, leaving time for another cycle to turn before or after the Olympics. Who will emerge as these candidates? Well we may not know their names yet. Herman Cain was not at the top of anyone's list of business leaders six months before he was leading national polls for the Republican nomination. Anyone who has run a medium sized business, commanded troops in battle, been Senator or Governor from any state, could look in the mirror and see a president.

Given the challenge of getting on state ballots, the nominations for the major minor parties are all worth getting and worth watching. The internet based AmericansElect.org has already gained access in 16 states, so it has the chance to become, at least temporarily, much more than a curiosity. This could become a vehicle for Ron Paul or former governors Buddy Roemer or Gary Johnson. But Americans Elect does not have to be the only game in town. Anyone that can raise a big pile of money can hire a whole mess of lawyers, and gain access to a few state ballots.

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