Sympathy for the Moderate Third Party

With the recent death of H. Ross Perot and the suspension of Howard Schultz’ plan to run, it is a good time to revisit the reasons people support moderate third-party candidacies while most political scientists eschew them. Both parties have long speculated that Perot changed the outcome of the 1992 election, despite political science evidence to the contrary. Schultz’ exploratory candidacy earlier this year aroused the same level of disdain from twitter that I saw the last time an unconventional billionaire sought the presidency. People speculated that he would split blue voters and reelect President Trump.

Now that we have some emotional distance from Schultz’ nonstarter candidacy, perhaps we can look at the reasons why a third party might challenge both sides from the center from a detached scholarly perch. This is not a justification for Howard Schultz in particular, who seemed to lack basic policy knowledge or disclose detailed policy agendas. Nor is it a justification for supporting third party moderates more generally. Rather, it is an argument that moderate third parties should be met with understanding rather than judgment.

Let’s consider the charges against moderate third parties.

  1. Third parties cannot win.

The most frequent jab at Schultz was that he would fail American Politics 101 because he doesn’t understand Duverger’s Law, which states that third party votes are wasted votes in winter-take-all systems. No third-party candidacy has ever won the White House and very few have won congressional seats.

That does not mean third parties do not advance their policy agendas; many third-party candidacies have forced major parties to adjust their positions in order to avoid hemorrhaging votes. In 1844 and 1848, antislavery third parties lost but helped put slavery back on the agenda after the two major parties deliberately avoided it for decades. (In 1844, the Liberty Party arguably cost Whig Party nominee Henry Clay the election by taking away enough votes in New York). A New York Times op ed in February said that unlike Schultz’ proposed candidacy, successful third parties are polarizers, not moderates. But H. Ross Perot’s moderate candidacy received the second highest share of the popular vote in US history, not counting the 1856 election with two new parties.  Despite Perot’s loss in 1992, both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich noticed the appeal of Perot’s anti-deficit platform and paid greater attention to that issue. Many state legislatures also passed term limits, which were espoused by Perot. Even with the much smaller Green Party challenge in 2000, Al Gore had to consider how to defuse Ralph Nader’s appeal. Of course, politicians running on third party platforms cannot admit to running for a purpose other than winning, but that alone does not mean they should not run.

  1. Moderates are not representative of the American public.

Another complaint about a moderate third-party candidacy is that its policy agenda would be representative of the country. Although Americans complain about partisan polarization and the two-party system, most consistently side with one of the two parties. As Krupnikov and Klar show, most people who claim to be independent are secretly partisan. And Broockman shows that many “moderates” have idiosyncratic extreme positions, rather than consistently moderate positions.

But some Americans do hold moderate positions and they are not represented by either party. In 2014, Poole and Hare find that moderates are as numerous as liberals and conservatives, even when you remove the low information moderates who cannot place parties ideologically. (If you include low information voters, they are more numerous). More recently, Bump and Guskin use Pew Research Center data to show that only 7 percent of voters are true independents, and they tend to be less active. It’s not clear that they are confined to a particular race or class, either. Forty-four percent of African-Americans self-identify as moderates – a sizable percent even after discounting the social desirability of identifying as moderate.

There is room for debate about how many Americans are true moderates, but even 7 percent of the electorate has a right to fight for representation they are not obtaining through contemporary parties.  Of the people who hold a combination of idiosyncratic extreme views, it is unclear they should prioritize certain issues and choose across-the-board liberal or conservative parties, as opposed to reducing risk by choosing across-the-board moderate parties. Most self-identified independents are leaners, but even leaners are considerably more moderate than party nominees. Like Broockman’s idiosyncratic extremist moderates, it’s unclear they should prefer more extreme members of their own party, rather than a centrist between them and the other party.

  1. Moderates should work within the two parties rather than run as or vote for third party candidacies.

The most obvious path for someone who wants a moderate choice is to nominate moderate candidates in a party primary. Candidates seemingly change parties by winning party nominations and getting elected after promoting party change. Gary Jacobson’s most recent book shows that candidates and presidents of one’s own party have major effects on voter perceptions of that party and its ideology.

However, people with extreme agendas have an outsized say in nominations. Unions and evangelical churches with off-center positions are party bulwarks with decades of experience nominating candidates and gaining media attention. Institutional inertia means changing the direction of a party takes years, if not decades. My book shows that groups with an agenda need to develop organizational capacity and construct alliances with existing groups in a party. Right now, the existing groups in a party are allied with each other on liberal or conservative platforms, and mostly against moderate agendas.

Moderates suffer additional disadvantages than most political groups. Since moderates are more likely to see good points on all sides, they are less motivated than voters who see an election as a Manichean contest between good and evil.

Activists with liberal or conservative views have institutions that provide them with captive audiences: unions in the case of liberals, and evangelical churches in the case of conservatives. Civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights groups were ultimately able to make common cause with unions who could help them win support for their policies. Moderates arguably lack the captive audiences that make it easier to recruit people who would not otherwise be motivated in politics. If moderates look in mainline churches for like-minded politicos, they will find much more diverse audiences than do conservative Christians. The civic organizations that brought different beliefs together at the middle of the 20th century are disappearing.

The obvious way to bypass the party activists is by following Donald Trump’s example. It takes candidates with his fame and free publicity to promote their agenda to unorganized voters, largely ignoring the organized voters who play an outsized role in primaries. Howard Schultz hoped he could be such a candidate, though he quickly failed the gain the kind of following possessed by Ross Perot or Donald Trump.

  1. Parties do overrepresent the activists, but that’s only an appropriate reward for those more active and motivated.

As indicated above, one of the reasons moderates are not well-represented in the two major parties is that they are less attentive and less active. Maybe that is the way it should be, since representation factors intensity of belief and not just numerical superiority.

This would seem to disadvantage people of all ideologies unable to spend more time in politics because of work and family responsibilities. Additionally, people who value compromise and avoid conflict will quickly discover the strident tone in today’s politics, and will soon drop out, as moderate Republicans dropped out when Christian conservatives took over their party meetings. It would require dispersed and uncoordinated moderates across America to simultaneously become active, but each faces a collective action problem. No one moderate is going to change a party by attending a Tuesday night meeting with shrill extremists, and s/he has no way to ensure other moderates are putting in the same effort.

Given 1-4, it is understandable that some moderates seek the third-party route. Other ways of influencing parties are unavailable to moderates in the near future.  Schultz said he wouldn’t run in the Democrats nominated a moderate. This is a threat to throw an election into chaos, possibly spoiling the election for Democrats if they do not move in his direction. It’s obnoxious to take Republican extremism as a given and only threaten the Democrats for alleged extremism.

However, there are elections where it might be the only move available to moderates. The way to respond is not to tell them “you failed political science 101,” but to offer reasons why they should vote for one of the two major parties. For example, activists can explain that policies currently dubbed as extreme promote moderate ends. Maybe moderates do not know how current policies are harming people beyond their familiar social circles. Democrats can point out that the Republicans are not meeting moderates halfway either. Perhaps it is morally incumbent on moderates to unite with Democrats against the dangerous incompetence of the current administration. But moderates might respond that liberals need to give up something for unity with them, too.

Moderates deserve to have their policy preferences taken seriously, and not with righteous indignation. They have a difficult time influencing nominations compared with liberals and conservatives. Moderates should be met with a response other than “swallow your real preferences because you have been outnumbered and outmaneuvered in the two major parties.” Activists should try putting themselves in the moderate’s strategically disadvantageous position when asking them to join.

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