Wednesday, 17 December 2003

Party with Dean

James Joyner has some thoughts on a Mickey Kaus blog entry exploring the possibility of a third party run by Howard Dean if he doesn’t win the nomination. I honestly don’t think that is likely, or even logistically possible. The two major parties, while at their institutionally weakest state in modern history, still serve an important gatekeeping function in our system; while it’s arguably harder to win a major-party nomination than to gain ballot access on a third-party ticket, the reward of the major-party nomination is the virtually automatic vote of more than 30% of the electorate.

That is not to say that to win the nomination, candidates have to appeal directly to the party base. Registration rules in most states are now weak to nonexistent (part of a 100-year trend started by the “progressive” reforms that reflected a belief in a Tocquevillian ideal of a well-informed rational public rather than the reality of widespread political ignorance) and increased soft money regulations have meant an end to the financial ties between parties and candidates. Instead, the successful candidate in a large field can simply recruit disaffected apartisan ideologues* to his cause and use their support to create an air of inevitability around his campaign to recruit the support of institutional loyalists—the “true partisans,” if you will.

However, Kaus’ belief that we’ll see a breakdown of the two existing parties, at least on the ballot, is at best misguided. There are thousands of Democratic and Republican state legislators who would have to be convinced to remove the existing institutional advantages of their own parties to open the door for a new third party, while the idea of separate parties competing at the presidential level than in other elections seems a tad absurd (I could see separate parties at the state and national levels, but that’s not the same thing, really). There’s enough value attached to the Republican and Democratic labels that it’s likely we’ll see candidates fight over them long after the institutions they represent have been further eviscerated by further campaign finance “reform” and the continued march of the “progressive” legacy.

By the way, I hope some political scientist out there is doing a study of Dean activists, if only so I can steal borrow their data and test some of the hypotheses floating around in my head about them…

* My working hypothesis is that the typical Dean activist was an “out” or “closeted” Nader supporter in 2000, from a group of leftist activists that may have Democratic registrations but aren’t particularly committed to the Democratic Party as an institution.