Third-party candidates create risks for those voting for them

Americans are an independent bunch, but we have come together for orderly transitions of power throughout our history, most of the time with two dominant political parties. We seem markedly united compared to our European brethren, who have had legions of parties created, disbanded, renamed and combined — ranging from a fairly stable British model to the playful anarchy of Italy.

This doesn’t mean Americans don’t go their own way on political organizations. We have groups that range from demanding the overthrow of existing world governments to seeking complete pacifism.

Far from escaping the desire for maverick political organizations, Colorado exhibited its traditional independent streak by fielding a record 16 candidates for president on the 2008 ballot. It is home to third-party political organizations ranging from libertarian to green.

If present dissatisfaction with state and national politicians is any indicator, Colorado will see the formation of even more organizations as the direction of the country energizes a new group of citizens to political activity. While Coloradans have been quite open to supporting third-party candidates, there are pitfalls and the inevitable law of unexpected consequences.

The issue starts when you consider that, unless you only intended to vote for a third-party candidate from the beginning, your vote will be denied the major-party candidate who is closest to your political philosophy. Because that candidate would have otherwise received your vote, this helps your less-favored candidate succeed.

Take 1992, for example. Texas businessman Ross Perot founded the Reform Party and ran for president. Most analysts agree that Perot’s populist conservative politics were closer to those of GOP President George H.W. Bush than his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton.

After first garnering broad support, evidence of Perot’s electability began to decline, but he stayed in the race, despite clear evidence he could not win. He made a remarkable showing, carrying almost 19 percent of the popular vote to Bush’s 37 percent and Clinton’s ultimately winning 43 percent. In Colorado, Perot did even better by carrying 23.3 percent of the vote, including 23 percent in Mesa County.

Many believe that had Perot not stubbornly insisted on going to the general election with his candidacy, Clinton would not have been elected. Most suspect a muscular majority of Perot supporters would have defected to the Republican ticket and given the election to President Bush, and we would have had no President Clinton. This is the worst possible scenario for third-party candidates — their vote helps elect their least-desired alternative.

This doesn’t mean there’s not a purpose for other voices in the United States and Colorado political landscape. Their issues can even find resonance in a larger party that may adopt the position to attract supporters. Care, however, needs to be taken to not help their adversaries more than themselves.

There is also the challenge for Colorado independent parties to be recognized under Colorado law. To do so, they must nominate candidates who will appear on the state ballot and continue to qualify through several election cycles. This can be a problem because, in order to continue to exist, minor parties — as they are referred to in Colorado law — need to have one or more of their candidates receive at least 1 percent of the total votes cast for statewide office in one of the two preceding general elections or continue to have a thousand or more voters affiliated with the party.

These requirements can get tough. New political parties are often splintered off traditional ones and continue to splinter into yet more groups, constantly dividing their resources. Perot’s Reform Party spun off The America First Party, American Reform Party and Independence Party, radically lowering the influence of the original group.

This issue is comically captured in the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian,” where a Jewish group in the Holy Land is so concerned with its dislike of its splinter groups that it keeps forgetting its purpose was to drive out the Romans.

The upshot is that it’s usually more effective to form working groups or internal caucuses within existing parties to influence positions and candidates. You also get to vote in primaries that often decide the eventual winner.

But if you choose to ride out into the political wasteland alone — good luck and wear a warm coat.


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