Resolute Square

How To Think About Third Parties

Rick Wilson doesn't hold back: "All they can do is spoil the race. Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, and Ross Perot weren’t third-party, independent heroes representing a new, bold vision. They were spoilers, full-stop. This season, most of the spoiler action is directed against Joe Biden."
Published:October 12, 2023

By Rick Wilson

The third-party dream is always there in American political life, hovering at the edges of our vision, tempting and delicious. “Why, a third party could finally break the logjam of the duopoly.” “You know, if we took the best of both sides and just averaged it out, everyone would be happy.” “I’d like fiscal conservatism and social liberalism in my party, thank you!” Others on the edges of the spectrum are running to Send A Message to The Elites. (My eyes are rolling so hard I might get a migraine.)

It’s a fantasy. It’s political wanking. It doesn’t work because it cannot and should not work in 2024.

Why not?

Because any third-party effort on the left or center makes it more likely Donald Trump will return to office, the hubris and malice of the candidates on the left betray a simple truth: they’re okay with Trump returning because they don’t want to do the hard work of persuading voters to support them and of governing.

There Is No Path

I should know. I helped run Evan McMullins 2016 race, and we knew damn well we didn’t have a real path to 270. We worked like hell to build one, but it was obvious early that we weren’t going to be more than a speedbump as Donald Trump plowed over Hillary Clinton. We hoped — and failed — to at least capture a few states and throw the thing into Congress, where we once again hoped against hope that the entire thing would melt down and somehow we could stop Donald Trump.

It was a proud, doomed effort. We had dozens of Members of Congress who knew and liked Evan supporting us behind the scenes…almost all of whom morphed into Red Hat monsters the moment Trump won. We had no money (trust me, I felt that in the Spring of 2017 as the cost of opposing Trump came in the form of my very successful media and strategy company melting into nothingness), no real pathway to victory, and given our very late start, no damn hope.

People with an infinite amount of money have looked at the challenge — Mike Bloomberg, Howard Schultz, and others — have peered into the third-party, independent candidate void and seen nothing there but a bonfire of billions of their hard-earned dollars blazing away. Ross Perot, who came closest in the modern era, spent lavishly, rode a media wave, and still only crested 19% of the popular vote…and in the Electoral College, the one place where it counts, Perot walked away with nothing. Zero. A goose egg. Nada. Zip.

In the entire scope of American Presidential elections, the closest a third-party challenger came to winning was Teddy Roosevelt; Roosevelt received 88 Electoral College votes. He won six states: California, Washington, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. He was also a former President in a pre-media age.

In the modern era, the all-time third-party champion for winning Electoral College votes isn’t a man America holds in any sense of regard; George Wallace, Alabama’s racist, segregationist governor, ran for president as the candidate of the American Independent Party in 1968. He won five southern states and received 46 electoral votes. That’s it. That’s the high-water mark. The pinnacle.

There is no path for RFK, Jr.

There is no path for Cornell West.

There is no path for whatever hapless goon the No Labels scam puts on their GOP billionaire-funded ticket.

Every third-party bid relies on improbable bank shots, trick plays, fortuitous coincidences, random bolts from the blue, mistaken identities, disguises, alarums and excursions, and dei ex machina.

There is no path to victory for any of them.

All they can do is spoil the race. Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, and Ross Perot weren’t third-party, independent heroes representing a new, bold vision. They were spoilers, full-stop. This season, most of the spoiler action is directed against Joe Biden.

No Labels, which is funded by Clarence Thomas Sugar Daddy Harlan Crowe, among other deep-pocketed GOP grandees, is designed to draw moderate Democrats away from Biden and spoil the race for Trump. The weirdo group of crypto-bros, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy drones who thought RFK, Jr. would take out Biden in the Democratic primary are now realizing he’ll take votes from Donald Trump.

The RFK Jr. use case is going to make for a fascinating history; Steve Bannon, the Trump-right media machine, Joe Rogan, et al. turned him into a hero on the right. His money is coming from people on the right. I’m told his SuperPAC is funded in part with $5 million from the Mellon family. They thought he’d stick with the Democratic primary and be a Pat Buchanan figure on the left. Instead, the monster left his pen and is now a proximate cause of panic in Trumpworld. People who think Steve Bannon is a political genius are the same people who were impressed with that one goon in high school who carries a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in his backpack.

More Parties…Just Not Now

America is already functionally a three-and-and-a-half-party nation.

The MAGA horde, comprising roughly 95% of the GOP, is absorbed in its oppositional defiant disorder, culture-war white Christian nationalism, and lavish adoration of its umber god, the Dear Leader Donald Trump.

The wee, nanoscale micro-party of the Old Guard GOP, are a few old priests of a dying religion sitting around guttering campfires in the ruins of a once-grand empire. I expect them to win a few small races here and there, but the party I came up in is now roughly the size and influence of the Greens.

Finally, there are the two Democratic parties. There’s a broadly center-left Democratic Party of Biden/Clinton/Obama Democrats and the grumpy Progressives. The Progressives are bounded by their electability problem; in roughly 95 % of the country, including the most textbook liberal communities, they’re too far out there.

Should we have more parties? Of course. I’d love to see a center-right party based on economic liberty, fealty to the rule of law and the Constitution, a strong and principled national security policy, and minimal government interference in the lives of the citizens.

I’d also like a restored F-5 Tiger fighter jet, but that’s about as likely as a third-party victory.