Huston: The Reality of Third Parties

March 26, 2016

by Tom Charles Huston

I have pointed out earlier that since 1856 there has never been a third-party challenge mounted by disaffected party elements against the regular party nominee except when that nominee was the incumbent president. There are several likely explanations for this pattern, but a plausible one is pretty straight-forward.

Conventions of the party of an incumbent president have historically been tightly controlled by a patronage-dependent party apparatus loyal to the administration. This tended to lend itself conveniently to charges of “rigged” conventions and “stolen” nominations, and quite often such charges rang true. Since the founding of the Republican Party, the only successful challenge to the (re)nomination of a sitting president was that waged by Republican James A. Blaine in 1884 against Chester Arthur, who succeeded to the presidency on the death of James Garfield. It is not mere coincidence that the only other challenge to an incumbent that came within a few votes of victory was that by Ronald Reagan in 1976 against another “accidental” president.

Until the Eisenhower era, conventions in which no incumbent president was a candidate were fiercely contested and often required numerous ballots. The problem was exaggerated in the Democratic Party by a rule that until 1936 required the successful candidate to win the votes of a two-thirds majority of the delegates. The delegates to the Democratic Convention of 1924 cast 102 ballots before they finally settled on the compromise candidacy of John W. Davis.

Although incumbent presidents not seeking renomination occasionally sought to tilt the playing field in favor of a preferred candidate (Teddy Roosevelt overtly supported William Howard Taft as his successor), generally they operated with a light hand. In the modern era, incumbents have tended to support the ambitions of their vice-presidents (Truman was an exception), but none has irritated the party faithful by attempting to impose his preference on the convention.

Over the years, contenders in a non-incumbent contest for their party’s nomination have accepted, however reluctantly, the decision of the convention. The orchestrated undermining of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964 by the Rockefeller-Scranton wing of the party has been the exception, not the rule. Even in that case the disaffected did not take the third-party route. The senator would have been defeated by Lyndon Johnson in any event, but the liberal wing of the party paid a steep price in 1968 for what conservatives regarded as abject betrayal four years earlier. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, resurrected his political career by strongly supporting the party’s nominee in a losing election.

The Republican nomination fight this year is unique in practically every aspect, but the most relevant difference for my purpose is the grounds on which the Trump and anti-Trump forces would justify a third-party challenge against the party’s ultimate choice.

Although Trump has most recently said that he would not pursue such a challenge, his assurance on this score is not something many would take to the bank. If he were to renege on his word and willing to dig much deeper into his personal fortune, his justification would surely be that the party establishment cheated him out of the nomination. This is the Teddy Roosevelt rationale of 1912, and it would seem plausible to his supporters.

The anti-Trump forces, on the other hand, would justify a third-party challenge on grounds that the nominee was unfit for the presidency and his nomination amounted to a hijacking of the party by the rabble. Not only would this justification be a hard sell to those who voted for Trump in the primaries, it would also be unprecedented.

While third-party challengers have always had unkind things to say about their opponents, none has heretofore made such an extravagant claim. Moreover, such a claim would strike at the very purpose of political parties, which is to mobilize an electoral coalition behind a nominee determined in accordance with established party rules. Unless the anti-Trump forces can demonstrate that the process leading to his nomination was abused, they would be pitting their judgment against that of the voters and delegates who acted in accord with rules the defectors put in place. While such an effort might well enhance the moral self-esteem of the rebels, It is difficult to see how they would have any subsequent standing to “save” the party that they helped push over the cliff.

History is no guarantee of subsequent events, but it is a reasonable guide to their likelihood. On that basis, then, there is a case to be made that whatever the pros and cons of a third-party challenge this year, the odds of one being successfully launched are remote.

Tom Charles Huston, J.D., a history buff and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review residing in Indianapolis, is a former associate counsel to the president of the United States.


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