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Third Party Challenge

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WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. One of the hottest issues of the 2000 presidential election concerned whether Ralph Nader cost Democrat Al Gore the presidency. Was Nader the spoiler? Or was he standing up for the little guy? America has a long history of third party candidates. And now, party alignments are shifting. Thirty-five percent of Americans are Independents. This year, Ralph Nader is back for another go at the presidency. Whatís he up to? To find out, Think Tank is joined by Jeffrey Stonecash, chairman of the Political Science Department at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, and the author of Diverging Parties: Social Change, Realignment, and Party Polarization, and John Kenneth White, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, the author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition. The topic before the house: Third Party Challenge. This week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Jeff Stonecash and John Kenneth White. Jeff, John, welcome. Boy, is that a political name - Stonecash. Wow. Thatís a...

STONECASH: Itís unusual.

WATTENBERG: Weíre going to talk about Ralph Nader. John, why is Ralph Nader in this race?

STONECASH: I think that heís in it partly for ego, partly because he sees an opportunity to exploit the Iraq situation in November if it becomes worse, partly because he wants to move the Democratic Party in whatever direction he wishes to move it. I think that those are his reasons and also attention. Everyone knows that this could be a very close election. Heís clearly going to get a lot of press attention as a result of that, and I think those are the primary reasons - that there may be an opportunity come the fall that he can exploit.

STONECASH: And this is a guy who I think really does believe that parties donít differ much. He believes theyíre too nice to corporations. He can put that message out on the Internet and have people access it and he would never be able to get on the nightly news. So I think that is facilitating him. It makes it a little easier than it would have been before. He doesnít have to have much money.

WATTENBERG: Iíve got two very distinguished political scientists here. Letís do a little history because not everybody is our age and thereís people who donít know who Ross Perot is, certainly not who George Wallace was. So letís go back - let alone Abraham Lincoln who was a third-party candidate or a fourth-party candidate. Letís go back. Jeff, is there anything in the Constitution that says anything about a two-party system, let alone a three-party system?

STONECASH: No, thereís none. No, really parties are not...theyíre absent.

WATTENBERG: What are the big obstacles for a third-party candidate in American political life?

STONECASH: They face this tremendous problem within the states since the states control the rules about how you get on the ballot and the states are often not very receptive. Because two major parties are not - they donít want to make it any easier for third parties to come around and...

WATTENBERG: Is that a fair system the way we have it now? I mean take off whatever partisan hats you may or may not have, but is that fair?

STONECASH: Well, you know the rules for getting on the ballot for the major parties are the same as they are for the minor parties. So they would make the argument that itís the same. Youíve got to gather signatures; youíve got to be able to demonstrate youíve got support in the community. I think a lot of them would say that the problem the third parties face is theyíre just not that big; they donít have enough staff; they donít have any resources and that reflects their situation.

WATTENBERG: And again, one of the big problems - we did a special about four or five years ago and thought and thought and thought and said 'whatís sort of the hook on this thing?' and itís this so-called wasted vote theory. Why donít you explain the way that works?

WHITE: Sure. Once we get to October the support for third-party candidates has traditionally fallen off dramatically in the polls. Take 1980. I just went back and looked at John Andersonís support. In May of 1980 he was getting 23 percent support in the polls. He wound up with 6.5 percent.

WATTENBERG: They call it the 'he canít win syndrome'.

WHITE: Thatís exactly right.

WATTENBERG: Once you know thereís only going to be two people in it, youíre going to go for A or B, even if you like C.

WHITE: Even though Anderson made no mistakes between May and November. But my take on the third parties, too, is that thereís a profound American consensus around certain values - the values of freedom and individualism, equality of opportunity. We can name others. And the two major parties tend to operate within that consensus. But I think that makes this country very unique.

WATTENBERG: Part of that value system is that a man who wants to set up his own party or run as an independent should have the right to do that. I think the polls that Iíve seen show that pretty strongly.

STONECASH: Yes, and I think that the real virtue of third parties is theyíre vehicles for very intense expressions of views and I think a lot of people really believe thatís okay.

WATTENBERG: Now what year did Perot - í92, right? Itís the first time he ran against Clinton. I was at Disneyland or Disneyworld, whichever oneís in Anaheim and they were doing a reissue of a book I had written and giving out free books and thatís not the point to the story. You give out free anything in America thereís a long line. I didnít have anything to do for an hour except sign my name. And these were booksellers. This is not your run of the mill kind of people. Erudite, whatever. And I would just for the heck of it say, 'Who are you for?' or 'Who are you going to vote for?' And I must have got 80 or 90 percent of the people saying Ross Perot. I couldnít believe it. I mean everybody. And it wasnít that they could hear the person before because each person.... They had just come to the conclusion that this guy was a hero and he was making sense and for awhile he was. And he was ahead of both Bush 41 and Clinton in the polls.

STONECASH: See, I think he expressed something a lot of people felt strongly and they were frustrated about impasse in Washington. They wanted somebody [who] said heíd do the right thing. There were fiscal issues that werenít getting on the agenda - both parties were avoiding. And I think a lot of people thought he was a terrific vehicle for that and I think he played a big role in that.

WATTENBERG: I mean except for the fact that he was more than a little nuts, he - I mean he really had a great sense of language and everything else but he was just a little over the edge I think.

WHITE: Thatís right. But you can go back in history and look at nutty third-party candidates.. The Populists come to mind.

WATTENBERG: Absolutely. Letís just do that. I bet more than half our elections have had important third-party candidates. I mean they go back where the Free Soil and the...

WHITE: The Greenbacks.

WATTENBERG: The Greenbacks and the anti-Mason party.

STONECASH: Bullmoose.

WATTENBERG: Whoever heard of a party being only against...the anti-Mason party. That was a big deal. And former President Theodore Roosevelt running and came in second and Strom Thurmond. And poor Harry Truman had two third-party - Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond.

WATTENBERG: One of the really interesting things, and maybe you can give us some examples... what happens in third-party and independent candidacies is for the most part these are not dumb candidates. Theyíre guys who have good issues and the Republicans or the Democrats, or sometimes both, quickly steal their issues and then they say, 'Well, you know, why would you want to vote for Ralph Nader? You know, weíre saying the same thing.' For example...

STONECASH: I think the best example was Perot. Perot came along and started talking about deficits, about all this fiscal issue and everybody in Washington was writing 'the electorate doesnít get this, wonít understand it, doesnít care'. And all of a sudden Clinton and Bush were out there talking about fiscal issues and fiscal responsibility and I thought he had a huge impact. He put issues on the agenda that no one thought would get there.

WHITE: But I think the even more recent example is Nader, because in 2001 Congress passed the McCain-Feingold bill.

WATTENBERG: Campaign finance, which is one of the things he ran on, thatís right.

WHITE: Exactly. And now the Internet has made this argument of the two parties being bought by the corporation somewhat of a specious argument, I think. The amount of money thatís come into this election cycle is huge. Thereíll be a record in history. Probably a billion dollars spent by the time we get to November.

WATTENBERG: Is that all?? Just a billion?

WHITE: But itís the $50 contribution. Itís the $25 contribution over the Internet.

WATTENBERG: If you know how to use PayPal, which I donít,
but if you just press the button itís on your credit card.

WHITE: Exactly. This is stealing, if you will, one of Naderís chief arguments. And I think the other thing that makes this time so different is the high level of partisanship. Third parties need the right environment. This is not the right environment I think for Nader, today. Maybe by September or October it might get better depending on whatís happening in Iraq. But there are no George W. Bush Democrats to speak of when we look at the polls.

WATTENBERG: Zell Miller. Thatís one, right.

WHITE: But heís heading - itís a lonely club, Democrats for Bush. There are no John Kerry Republicans to speak of when we look. That is the survey data today...

WATTENBERG: Jim Jeffords.

WHITE: Right, but the survey data today...

WATTENBERG: But youíre right; it is a...

WHITE: Under ten percent.

WATTENBERG: Bush í43 did - his slogan for awhile was 'Iím a uniter, not a divider.' And whether youíre for him or against him thatís not whatís happened. I mean he really has [whoosh] just straight down.

WHITE: And that environment I think makes it much more difficult for third parties, like Nader, to operate. Democrats I donít think are tempted to vote for Nader, though you might have thought that Dean and Nader would have had a lot in common. Might have even joined forces. Thatís not going to happen. I think the Democrats are so angry with George W. Bush now theyíre not tempted to vote for Nader. That doesnít mean he still canít be an influence given a very, very close election. But we didnít have the same level of partisanship. In 2000, voters didnít really want a lot of change. They wanted a different personality as president.


WHITE: In 2000.

WATTENBERG: And what did Ralph Nader end up getting? Two or three percent, something like that?

WHITE: He got 2.5 percent of the vote, nationwide.

WATTENBERG: 2.5 percent.

STONECASH: You know, the only thing I think John is interesting in is this matter of the youth and whether or not theyíre so angry about Iraq and he appeals to that and Kerry stands not too far from Bush. Itís possible that they - he could pull them. That Nader could say, 'I am absolutely against the war' and the only one making a clear position of that and someone could say, 'Iím going to go with this guy'.

WHITE: I disagree a little bit with this because I think we have an election now that involves an incumbent president and whenever we have that kind of an election the issue is always the same. All right, do you want change? Or do you want more of the same?

WATTENBERG: What they say is, itís always a referendum on the president.

WHITE: Right. Exactly. Do you want the status quo - what. In í96 we wanted the status quo to continue? In í92 we wanted change. In 2000 we wanted a little bit of change but the status quo and thus the tie.

WATTENBERG: The other thing is...

WHITE: Thatís the key.

STONECASH: One thing I think is a little different here, John, is that there are people who see the parties as so much the same. Iím always impressed when I talk to some people. They see them so much the same that they donít care which one wins and theyíll vote for a third-party. There are those people out there who really just see them as Tweedledum, Tweedledee.

WHITE: But to give you an idea I think of how intense the partisanship is, the best question was one asked by Zogby International of the likely voters in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year. Do you like George W. Bush as a person or donít you like him? And the striking thing to me was a plurality said 'we donít like him'. And in New Hampshire that includes Democrats and independents saying 'we donít like him as a person.' Eighty percent were disapproving back then of his job performance.

WATTENBERG: When was this taken?

WHITE: January of 2004. And to my mind that question captured the degree of hostility...

WATTENBERG: But you get some other questions: does he say what he means; does he believe what he says? There are very good grades on those. Very honest. And it all ties in I think in many ways to the fact - again you can have your own opinion on it, but this is an authentically religious man now. I mean, I donít think anybody would argue about that right now. You know, by his own admission he was not but he really is.

WHITE: But I think that this values divide is so great now in American politics that we have really almost two countries that live in parallel universes. And that makes it very difficult I think for third parties to operate.

WATTENBERG: Letís argue that a minute because you hear this red states, blue states. I mean, Americans believe for example - you know, abortion is not a big issue. You look at the polls itís number nine or number twelve or something like that. But you ask your sort of basic values questions, I mean, Iíll phrase it my way but 'are you for a free enterprise economic system in America or in the world?' and youíll get overwhelmingly positive answers. Or your generic patriotism questions: do you think Americaís the greatest country in the world? Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives. Thatís been above 90 percent ever since Iíve been following polls, which is quite a few decades now. I mean this is an intensely patriotic country on both sides. You would agree with that?

WHITE: I would agree with that but Iíd also say if we look at some of the other divisions, for example the religious division and church attendance...


WHITE: ...both sides would overwhelmingly also say 'we believe in God; we believe in the power of prayer.' But where they find spirituality is totally different. Their lifestyle choices are totally different. The question about patriotism...

WATTENBERG: Thatís David Brooksí Bobos in Paradise. That whole...

STONECASH: You know, John, the only thing is - I agree with you - I think this division is huge and it pushes people away from third parties. But all weíre talking here at this point is a couple percentage points. Thatís what I find interesting.

WHITE: But weíre also talking about an electorate where maybe under 10 percent are undecided at this stage.

STONECASH: I know, but what Iím interested in is that generally those polls donít ask all these questions.

WATTENBERG: Thatís the really interesting thing is he could end up again with two or three percentage points and people would, well, you know, heís the same old, same old. On the other hand, if those are in two or three states - Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, Arizona where whichever...

STONECASH: You know, the only the reason I say all this is because I canít believe...

WATTENBERG: ...Michigan - I mean your real key swing states - he can decide the election the way he may well have last time.

WHITE: But the history of third - of second acts for third parties in American politics is pretty poor. Pretty poor. And the question will be...

WATTENBERG: For example.

WHITE: Well, for example Ross Perot cut his vote in half in 1996.

STONECASH: Wallace slipped badly in subsequent times.

WHITE: Wallace didnít run a second time.

WATTENBERG: No, he ran but he ran as a Democrat.

WHITE: He ran as a Democrat, but his party continued.


WHITE: The American Independent party.

WATTENBERG: People forget, you know, I was involved in that race, that in 1972 within the Democratic parties - within the Democratic primaries, Humphrey, Wallace and McGovern got just about identical popular votes. Now, because McGovern knew how the rules were played he had more than fifty, but it was - Wallace had a big, big, big vote and Humphrey had the old labor union. It was a very interesting...

WHITE: And you could argue that third parties thrive in an environment where the party elites themselves are very, very divided. And therefore they attract some mass following. The Democrats in 1972, as you well know, were so divided. Not just over the war but what kind of party are we going to be.

WATTENBERG: And again we can just go back to that whole communications revolution, whatever it is that used to happen is doubled and redoubled right now. I mean you put stuff up on the net and boom, tomorrow morning youíre in business. If you have a unique selling proposition of some sort.

STONECASH: The one thing I think is interesting is that if Kerry and Bush roll along toward the election and theyíre both quibbling about Iraq, thereís a possibility some - a lot of people would say Iím so frustrated. Iím going to vote...

STONECASH: I think itís unlikely but...

WATTENBERG: Theyíre going to vote for Nader.

STONECASH: I think itís unlikely but you know, I never predict these things because you never know.

WATTENBERG: What classes do you teach? This year what do you teach?

STONECASH: Campaign analysis class.

WATTENBERG: Up at Syracuse?


WATTENBERG: What are your kids saying?

STONECASH: Well, you know, itís interesting. I made all of them - I got a hold of all of them, I made them do a poll before they left campus. Thereís 90 kids in the class and it was really interesting. Theyíre very polarized but we asked a number of questions about how different do you see the parties and thereís about 10 percent that donít see any difference between the Democrats and Republicans. And theyíre prime territory for somebody like Nader.

WATTENBERG: Well, you know...

WHITE: The only reason I say these things...

WATTENBERG: ... notwithstanding this idea that weíre more polarized than ever, blah, blah, blah, there is a case to be made. I mean in a successful country as we are, that your two main parties are successful and not wildly dissimilar. I mean theyíre pros and theyíve been around and, you know, they know that you canít tell people how theyíre going to balance the budget, but then youíve got to say which specific cuts youíre going to make so you say, 'weíll balance the budget but Iíll tell you later how Iím going to do it', the magic asterisk, you know, so-called and so... and what about your students at Catholic?

WHITE: Well, theyíre more Republican, more conservative but thatís - I think almost youíd expect that because again...

WATTENBERG: It being a Catholic school?

WHITE: Yes. Right. Exactly. So - and church attendance is somewhat higher than the rest. Thereís a strong Democratic contingent, though, however.

WATTENBERG: Yes, there was some good polling that showed - last time - that showed that the single biggest breakpoint was whether you went to church.

WHITE: That shows up now.

WATTENBERG: Churchgoers were Republicans and people who didnít go to church were Democrats. I mean, by and large.

WHITE: Right. But now I think the country is so divided, not just along those lines but along gender lines. Marriage is a huge gap in this election.

WATTENBERG: Where do your kids come out on the gay marriage thing - both of you?

STONECASH: Theyíre not troubled by it the slightest.

WATTENBERG: You say theyíre not troubled?

STONECASH: Theyíre very much in favor of government staying out of this and they donít want any amendment about it, no. Older people are much more in favor of the government...

WATTENBERG: How about...

WHITE: More conservative. More prone not to support it.

WATTENBERG: There is this year, as there has been for many years, a Libertarian candidate and theyíre on the ballot I think in all fifty states. This yearís candidate is named Michael Bednarik. Is that his name?

WHITE: Thatís right.

WATTENBERG: And, you know, thereís a strong Libertarian current in this country. I mean we all know that. And they never draw more than one or two percent. Itís the weirdest, weirdest darn thing. You would think that if any party were ever going to just take off and fly. I wonder what would have happened if Perot would have run as a Libertarian.

STONECASH: Yes. I think this guyís got so little visibility. I donít think heís going to make much impact.

WATTENBERG: Yes, I know.

WHITE: Remember a candidate named Ron Paul? Who was the Libertarian third-party candidate, now a congressman - Republican congressman from Texas - speaking out in congress the other day vigorously against Iraq by the way. Good illustration

WATTENBERG: So is it - again, in a really close state this guy Bednarik, he could be - give the extra 2,000 votes, too.

WHITE: Itís possible but itís unlikely.

WATTENBERG: But heís not going to be as much of a threat to Bush as Nader is potentially going to be to Kerry.

WHITE: Yes, I think thatís right.

STONECASH: The Republican Party voting has always been more cohesive than the Democrats. It still is. Every poll shows that. So I think theyíre going to stay with Bush.

WATTENBERG: All right.

WHITE: But I have a little caveat on this if I can real quick.


WHITE: And that is that the interesting thing for the Libertarians is what if Bush loses? Because then the divisions within the Republican Party, particularly at the elite level that would involve the traditional conservatives, the Libertarians, the neo-cons and so on, could splinter enough so that one faction might be able to attract some greater mass support within the electorate.


WHITE: And thatís what you need.

WATTENBERG: Now, weíve really got to get out. Last question. Weíll go with you John and then Jeff. Whoís going to win this election?

WHITE: Today itís Kerry. Why? Because right track/wrong track question, the country definitely feels that weíre on the wrong track. Itís very difficult for an incumbent to offer himself as a candidate of change. Much can change certainly between now and November. You could also argue that demography is destiny, your old line. That may in fact help Kerry. I do think...


WHITE: Well, a growing Hispanic population, growing Asian population.

WATTENBERG: Asians I think tend to Republicanism a little more than...

WHITE: Actually thereís some contradictory data and it depends on...

WATTENBERG: Bush got 30-35 percent of the Latino vote. Bush has done a very, you know...

WHITE: Right now Bush is at 33 percent, according to the latest polls.

WATTENBERG: Of the Latino vote?

WHITE: Of the Hispanic vote.

WATTENBERG: Of the Hispanic vote, right.

WHITE: Right. And that is right on the cusp of what you need.

STONECASH: We have no clue whatís going to happen between now and November. No clue at all. And you know, when youíve got a war I still think one of the most difficult things for people to do is abandon a war-President. Itís really tough. And he could pull that and play the strings. Iím not sure heís got the subtlety to play it well. Heís not doing it with much subtlety, but he could still play that and be enough. All heís got to nudge is three or four percentage points.

WATTENBERG: Three or four? One or two, may do it.

WHITE: The biggest thing is that this looks like 1980 in reverse.

WATTENBERG: Where Reagan had to prove himself. Although the people were fed up with Carter but they had to say finally, Reaganís okay.

WHITE: Yes, that and unpleasant pictures from overseas in both elections. Some jittery economic news, gas prices, all the rest.

WATTENBERG: Okay, right, okay. Jeff, John, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank YOU. Please, remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our show better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

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