Friday, August 11, 2006

You're Invited to Our Party! Bring Friends!

In my travels through the blogosphere, I've encountered lots of people who have some interest in third parties. This includes jedmunds (wherever he is) and some people at Shakes' place -- though perhaps not Shakes herself. Especially after the exciting events of this week, I'd like to offer them some advice and an invitation.

Any movement big enough to make a third-party candidate remotely competitive in a general election can easily win a Democratic primary. This is mostly because there are far fewer Democratic primary voters. 283,055 people voted in Tuesday's primary; 1,253,571 people voted in Lieberman's 2000 general election victory. Democratic primary voters, furthermore, are more accepting of left-wing views than general election voters are. So if you have a movement that's big enough to be competitive in a general election, you can easily swing through the Democratic primary and pick up the nomination on your way. When the general election comes, you'll get the votes of all the straight-ticket Democratic voters, and you'll be the clear choice for every left-of-center voter. It's a lot easier to take over the Democratic Party and win elections that way than it is to build a successful third party.

Look at how it happened in Connecticut, where Ned Lamont is going to be the Democratic nominee. He'll most likely win the election. Over the last half-century, 24 incumbent Senators have been denied renomination in primaries. None have gone on to win the general election, which bodes pretty badly for Lieberman. The only one who tried to keep campaigning all the way to November got 11% of the vote. Instead of sending your third-party candidate into the general election, go for the Democratic nomination, and make these numbers work for you.

There's an important flip side to this. If a left-wing candidate can't win a Democratic primary, that candidate clearly doesn't have a movement big enough to win a general election. Then there's no point in running a third-party candidate in the general. The Democrats won't move left to prevent a third-party candidate from stealing their votes -- for them to break even with this strategy, they have to win 2 votes on the left for every one that they lose in the center. (Losing a centrist voter to the Republicans means they need one left-wing voter to make up the loss and then another left-wing voter to match the Republican gain.) And while moving left will turn out Democratic base voters in larger numbers, it may turn out the Republican base in larger numbers as well, and Democratic incumbents know that.

Running third-party candidates in general elections, then, won't substantially change Democrats' behavior. But especially with Lieberman's defeat fresh in their minds, the possibility of a primary challenge will. Take a look at this post from mcjoan, where she talks about how Jane Harman came out against war with Iran and warrantless wiretapping after Marcy Winograd challenged her from the left in a primary. That's a strategy that can succeed in several different ways, and it's one that I invite progressives who are unhappy with the Democrats to try.


Robin said...

You travel through the blogosphere? Wow, Neil, I didn't know you could fly a plane. Or perhaps you are ballooning?

I don't imagine I'd meet many people if I was flying around, but that's cool that there are so many people interested in third parties up there in the sky.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Every time I use the word blogosphere, I think of you.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

I've been studying this a bit more lately; parrticularly in regard to Texas' gubernatorial election.

It looks like Texas is going to get 4 more yrs of Perry because of the independents in the race.

That's sad enough by itself. It's worse that most people will never figure out that splitting the opposition is not a winning strategy.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah! I wish Kinky had run as a Democrat. I know he'd lose some of his independent flavor, but winning the Democratic primary would've given him a lot more votes than he has now.

Personally, I'd rather Bell drop out than anything else, but I don't see that happening...

Mavis Beacon said...

Or we could just have instant runoffs.

You're correct that it's possible to move the party leftward from within, but you're still constraining democratic choice. As some one who leans left of most Democrats but still ends up voting blue most of the time, I'd love a system that offers me more choice. Choosing leaders shouldn't be the provence of only the most active.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I'd prefer IRV to what we have now, but I think the full range of choices are represented in the current system. You just have to take into account primaries as well as general elections.