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Posted by on Feb 13, 2012 in Politics | 20 comments

The Siren Song of Third Party Candidates

Hmm. It appears that a group called Americans Elect is making a serious aim to put a third national candidate on the ballot in November. They look fairly well-funded:

I get a strong feeling of deja-vu every time this sort of thing comes up. Are these people really so naive? Independent candidates sound sooooooo attractive, until you have to take a close look at one. Then the luster tends to fade pretty fast.

First let’s get this out of the way: I am by most definitions a centrist. I have issues where I agree with the Democrats, issues where I agree with the Republicans, and issues where I disagree with both. Since my first election in 1984, I have voted for Democrats and Republicans in almost equal numbers, and third party candidates on occasion. In 2008 I voted for John McCain (R) but will in all likelihood vote for Barack Obama (D) in 2012. I am the very definition of a “swing voter.” So you would think with all that, I would love this “Americans Elect” idea.

But I don’t. Not only do I think it’s unlikely to elect a President, but I think it’s unlikely to produce a good one even if they do succeed.

It is all well and good for someone to say “the two parties don’t represent me.” The “Americans Elect” folks point out that 80% of Americans would vote for a third-party candidate if it was the right candidate. But there’s the rub: finding that “right” candidate. There’s where it breaks down, because while most people consider themselves independent to some extent, agreement starts to break down once you start looking at things issue-by-issue.

For example, I know plenty of people who don’t like the Republicans because they feel that Republicans are much too conservative–and people who don’t like Republicans because they feel Republicans are nowhere near conservative enough. I know people who don’t like Democrats because they find them too liberal, but others who don’t like them because they consider Democrats nowhere near liberal enough. I know Republicans who think their party is too conservative on social issues, and Democrats who think their party is too liberal on social issues. Get any of these people in the same room together, and none of these people will likely agree much with each other.

This is because “left” and “right” and “liberal” and “conservative” are much too broad to describe anything concrete. When you start answering specific questions you get in trouble:

What if you are in favor of gay marriage, think schools should make birth control available to students, think abortion is immoral and should be more restricted than it is now, support the war in Afghanistan, think the US should make it more difficult for foreign goods and services to be imported here, think the US should take a more active military role in opposing dictatorships abroad, think taxes should be raised on the wealthy and on large corporations, think the environment is important but we have the wrong priorities on environmental protection, think global warming and CO2 should be the least of our environmental concerns, favor decriminalizing drugs, think gun ownership is admirable and should be encouraged, think everyone should be required to carry health insurance, think government should pay for everyone’s education all the way through college, and think prayer and the teaching of Creationism in the public schools should be left up to local school districts and not a national issue? Let me tell you, it is possible to hold all those ideas in your head at once, and be a person of principle. And I guess that would make you a “centrist” or “independent.”

But guess what? If another person feels exactly the opposite of you on all those issues, they are “centrists” or “independents” too–but they will not agree with you on much of anything. Neither one of you will necessarily be unprincipled or unintelligent or uninformed, although there will be ideologues who accuse you both of it. But one thing is highly unlikely: that there can be any candidate who can make both of you happy. And if either of you gets a candidate you’re completely happy with, odds are good that a majority of people won’t be happy.

This is because there is no “center” in politics except a certain sweet spot–or let’s call it the “sour spot”–where the majority of people are not particularly happy but are, most of the time, not terribly unhappy.

The system as we have it works because it pretty much forces everybody to compromise. And in truth, entirely aside from ideology, both political parties are very good at finding ways to be popular enough on some issues, and not-unpopular on enough other issues, to get elected. When voting, most people almost invariably vote for whatever or whoever makes them least-unhappy at the moment. So as nice as it sounds to say “I’m not tied to any political party and I want a candidate who feels the same way!” you’ll likely stop feeling that way the minute you get that candidate who, exactly like you, doesn’t think of herself as tied to any party either, but who turns out not be anything like what you thought you wanted.

There is no definable “center.” It doesn’t exist. To paraphrase a great aphorism: you can make all of the people happy some of the time, some of the people happy all of the time, but you cannot make all of the people happy all of the time. But I don’t think even that fits: it’s more like, “You can make about half the people happy about half the time, if you’re lucky. If you do you get elected, and if you don’t, you don’t.” That’s the way politics really works.

(This item cross-posted to Dean’s World.)

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  • RP

    Dean you make some excellent points, especially the paragraph listing positions on a number of issues.

    Maybe those of us in the center would be happier if government tried to stay out of so many different things and worked on what was really important. Many of those issues you list could be controlled at the lcoal level where individuals might have one position in California and New York, while those in Kansas and Georgia might have other ideas. Just a thought that might allow the federal representatives time to really work on deficit reduction andturn the fiscal boat around.

    As for the American’s elect movement, in theory this should work to find a candidate that would be acceptible to a large majority of people. in reality the candidate they end up with will not be aligned with either party or if they were, would be of lessor quality, thus providing the third party with just enough votes to swing the election one way or the other. If they picked someone like Sanders from Vermont, he could pull enough votes from Obama. And someone like Huntsman could pull enough from the republican candidate to reelect Obama.

    Seems like our problem is just finding one good candidate for two parties which has not happened since Clinton was the Democrats nominee and Bush 41 was the republican nominee.

  • SteveK

    I have voted for Democrats and Republicans in almost equal numbers, and third party candidates on occasion. In 2008 I voted for John McCain (R) but will in all likelihood vote for Barack Obama (D) in 2012. I am the very definition of a “swing voter.” So you would think with all that, I would love this “Americans Elect” idea.

    I refer you again to the question you left unanswered the last time you made this claim… Does Michigan allow non-Republican voters to vote in the Republican Primary?

  • SteveK: Yes.

    Michigan has open primaries, or more properly, “semi-closed,” which means that when you walk in on primary election day you ask for whatever party’s ballot you want, but you can only have one party’s ballot. You do not “register as a Republican” or “register as a Democrat,” you simply ask for whatever party’s ballot you want on that day.

    This year it would be silly for anyone to vote in the Democratic primary, at least in my part of Michigan, since there are no Democrats in any seriously contested elections. At least where I live, so far as I know every Democrat on the ballot is running uncontested or has no serious opponent. On the other hand, for the Republican nomination, both the Senate candidate and the Presidential candidate are up for grabs, so why wouldn’t you vote in it?

    I have heard rumblings that the Republicans were going to hold a closed caucus in Michigan this year after the primary and that the primary will therefore be non-binding. This will upset me if so but I will vote in it anyway so the Republican establishment at least gets the message of how I think. If their caucus-goers nominate someone counter to what the primary voters choose, they’re going to seriously piss off Michigan voters.

    Michigan has a reputation for being a “maverick” state with the national establishments of both major parties by the way; our Democrats tend to be of a blue collar/conservative bent and our Republicans tend toward the socially moderate side, but the voters here also tend to be ornery and refuse to vote for whoever they’re supposed to. I have been saying for quite some time that Mitt Romney’s status as a “native son” means almost nothing here and he may well lose this state.

  • By the way, I was amused to read in this thread that somehow my “silence” implied something sinister. The presumption that I, or anyone, has the time to read and respond to every single comment is ridiculous. I didn’t even see that question until just now.

    So to answer again: Yes non-Republicans can vote in the Republican primary in Michigan.

    Furthermore, in case you give a damn, I have already made it public that I plan to vote for Obama in November–although I will now add that obnoxious Democrats who cast aspersions at anyone who thinks different from them could certainly talk me out of it.

    Not too likely this time around I admit; I support the President on national health care, and I think he deserves massive credit for his handling of of Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, I do not like Mitt Romney, and I would never in a million years vote for Rick Santorum.

    So here’s a thought for you: yes there really are independent voters out there, we really do read and think about the issues, and we don’t always think like you. Furthermore, treating us with contempt is not a good way to talk us into supporting your candidates, which isn’t too bright since we’re the ones who decide most elections.

    For the record, I voted the straight party line for Democrats in 2010, except for my congressman Thad McCotter (R), because I like him. Republicans had otherwise pissed me off across the board so much I wanted to vote against them. Not that it did much good, as you can see from who currently sits in Michigan’s Governor’s mansion and controls the legislature.

  • If Americans Elect were simply a third party trying to claim the center, what you have so thoughtfully composed would make sense. But, what most people seem to misunderstand about AE is that what it is trying to accomplish is to change the process of how America chooses its candidates for political office, starting with the Presidency this year. The growing polarization and inability of the 2 parties to compromise has led to extreme dysfunction and paralysis in government decision making, and those of us caught in the middle no longer have a voice. Americans Elect has been designed so that all registered voters can join and participate by: nominating candidates, crafting policy questions for them to answer, identifying the candidates that match best with their views, and selecting via a series of run-offs, the final AE candidate. The broader the participation, the more likely the final candidate will reflect the values of the majority of Americans.

    If successful, the AE model could replace adversarial party politics and policy-making. The result could be a truly revolutionary form of direct democracy in which each voter’s voice has equal weight, the final result being one of consensus, instead of gridlock. Of course, in such a system, there will still be discontent with the result by those on the fringe extremes. But, if we really believe in democracy, then the will of the majority will be demonstrated, and we will have no parties or other power brokers other than ourselves to blame.

    So, I see nothing to lose, and potentially everything to gain by investing my time and energy in joining AE and helping its process to be successful. It sure beats wasting time passively witnessing the parties, media, and pundits leading us to a place where no one feels represented.

  • zephyr

    Lots of people here like Mitt for no other reason than his being a Romney, so I certainly wouldn’t say it means “nothing”. That said, the choices in the primary are abysmal no matter how you shake it out, which means Michigan (unless it loses it’s collective grip on reality) will go for Obama come the general. As for the stream of consciousness rambling about what makes a “centrist”, it seems a little incoherent to me, but then I’m a concise kind of guy who likes to get to the point.

    Btw, re: this comment:

    “although I will now add that obnoxious Democrats who cast aspersions at anyone who thinks different from them could certainly talk me out of it”

    Kind of a silly thing to say. If your convictions are that fragile why should anyone care?

  • The_Ohioan

    The siren’s song is somewhat off-key. There seem to be some shadowy characters lurking in the background and that’s the way they want it to stay.

    A good idea, but its funders need to be more transparent and less heavy handed.

  • DaGoat

    I’m in the middle of this book now:

    What studies have shown is that independents are primarily made up of people who are more socially liberal than Republicans and more fiscally conservative the Democrats. There used to be a lot of politicians like this in both parties until the recent stampede into “purity” on both sides of the aisle.

    A candidate with those attributes could conceivably attract a big chunk of independents plus possibly some Democrats and Republicans that aren’t on the extremes. The problem of course is finding and financing that candidate.

  • SteveK

    Btw, re: this comment:

    “although I will now add that obnoxious Democrats who cast aspersions at anyone who thinks different from them could certainly talk me out of it”

    Kind of a silly thing to say. If your convictions are that fragile why should anyone care?

    Thanks Zepher.

    When I read “I am not a Republican’s” first reply explaining how primaries work in Michigan I was going thank him and admit that I hadn’t looked into it but assumed (since he chose not to reply four times in two threads about them) that they were closed… But after reading his soft skinned second comment that you mention, I think I’ll pass.

    Regarding “Americans Elect” they’re
    pretend to allow open elections but their actual

    Americans Elect Candidate Ejection Committee Chaired by FBI, CIA, Military Research Chiefs

    You read that right. But before you find out who they are, consider what they will do.

    What the Americans Elect Candidate Ejection Committee Does
    Americans Elect is the first-ever effort by an American corporation to run its own privatized online presidential nomination. Votes on the first ballot will begin in 124 days, and you’re supposed to be able to make a choice — but only between alternatives that the Americans Elect corporation deems acceptable. The self-appointed Americans Elect corporate Board of Directors will appoint a Candidate Certification Committee, which serves at the corporate board’s pleasure, can be reshuffled at the corporate board’s will, and is empowered in two ways to reject candidates that it does not consider suitable. Certification doesn’t sound so bad, but it has a complement: decertification, exclusion, ejection. This is a Candidate Ejection Committee

    Here’s who their Candidate Ejection Committee is made up of

    So who will be sitting on this candidate ejection committee? Americans Elect has just named the first three committee members. They are:

    Larry Diamond
    — Professor of Sociology and Political Science, Stanford University
    — Member, Council on Foreign Relations

    William Webster
    — Former Chairman of the Board, RAND Corporation
    — Former Director, FBI
    — Former Director, CIA
    — Chairman, Homeland Security and Advisory Council to the United States Goverment
    — Member, Council on Foreign Relations

    James Thomson
    — Former staffer, National Security Council and Department of Defense
    — President of RAND Corporation until last month
    — Member, Council on Foreign Relations

    Follow the link for more information about these wing-nuts in disguise.

  • SteveK

    My comment:

    Regarding “Americans Elect” they’re
    pretend to allow open elections but their actual

    Should have read:

    Regarding “Americans Elect” they pretend to allow open elections but they’re actually:

    Teach me to drop out in the fifth grade. 😉

  • Americans Elect is the “Green Eggs and Ham” of the upcoming American awakening. Instead of making excuses for rejecting it, try it out. You have nothing to lose by participating and helping to choose a valid nominee, unless, of course the current two party standoff is working for you.

  • ShannonLeee

    Dear 3rd party candidate,

    best of luck getting on all of the state ballots…

  • zephyr

    Just to follow up Steve’s info, here’s some more background on Americans Elect by way of Wiki:

    “Kellen Arno is the National Field Director for Americans Elect[50] and his father, Michael Arno, is Ballot Access Advisor for Americans Elect.[44] Michael Arno is the president of the controversial Arno Political Consultants with his son, Kellen, assisting as vice president.[51][52]

    Arno Political Consultants, Inc. (APC) is a company based in Lincoln, California. The company was founded in 1979 by Michael Arno.[1]
    The company reports that its former and current clients include the National Rifle Association and R. J. Reynolds.[2]
    APC has frequently been the subject of controversy over its bait-and-switch tactics, bribery, forgery, and other types of fraud in gathering signatures.

    Fred Wertheimer, known for his work on campaign finance reform, said, “They (Americans Elect) must be trying to hide from the public who their donors are. This is a very strange way for a group to act that is complaining about the state of American politics”.[6]

    Looks pretty shaky to me.

    Btw, this bit from the post:

    “The system as we have it works because it pretty much forces everybody to compromise.” – DE

    Well, it used to work, but it hasn’t worked very well for a couple decades now. Maybe relative newcomers see the current standard as normal – which is something of a tragedy imo. As for compromise… what compromise? Is this what we call obstruction and capitulation now? I like the original definition better.

  • Zephyr: Obnoxious supporters of a party or candidate often drive people away; I notice no shortage of people whoo seem to feel that the Tea Party would prevent them from supporting Republicans, just for example.

    I have often voted against Democrats and against Republicans to send the message “you’re being obnoxious jerks.” I think that’s as good a reason as any. I had a friend whose car was once vandalized because someone didn’t like the political bumper sticker on his car; you can bet that not only did that harden his point of view, but it affected the views of those around him as well. Another friend of mine had the same happen to her. I won’t tell you in either case what candidates they were supporting but I can tell you that these friends of mine were *not* of the same political mentality at all, but they and those around them were affected by such experiences when election day came around.

    If you want concision in defining “centrist,” you’re out of luck, because there is nothing more concise than “someone who often disagrees with both parties.” But it’s impossible to pin down with any further precision I think. Which is the thrust of my argument: centrism cannot exist as its own entity because two people with diametrically opposed views on the issues of the day can still be called centrist.

    By the way, in looking at history, I’m not convinced we’re any more polarized than we have been at many times in our past. It appears we tend to forget how polarized the past was and to assume it was better simply because we weren’t there and don’t remember. I remember times when it was a little less polarized, but in looking at history it looks like we’ve had times in this country’s history where we were a great deal more polarized. So I suspect it’s cyclical more than anything.

  • johnhain49: You make an eloquent case for the Americans Elect people, and despite those casting aspersions at their funding sources they appear to be reasonably straightforward in how they ask their questions and helping match you up to candidates who agree with you, with plenty of candidates of multiple ideological stripes to choose from. For the heck of it, I answered a full 200 of their questions on where I stood on the issues, and then asked them to match me to some candidates. Amusingly, here are the candidates they said I best matched up to:

    Bernie Sanders (socialist)
    Barack Obama (Democrat)
    Ron Paul (libertarian Republican)
    Jon Huntsman (conservative Republican)

    In all four cases, the matchup was just about exactly 50%. So now I know what I need: a perfect blend of Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, and William F. Buckley Jr.! Good luck finding that for me. 😉

    So yes this confirms what I suspected: no perfect candidate can exist because there are too many contentious issues and people aren’t always going to agree even though decisions nevertheless must be made.

    As I answered the questions the site was very helpful in showing how my answers matched up with other voters around the country, and frequently I was in the majority but just as frequently it seemed I was not, and sometimes it was because I have a minority viewpoint but often it was because there was no majority position but rather Americans were split 3 or more ways on a question–yet on such questions, frequently, only one could have their way.

    Thus whatever its flaws–and I agree it could use some improvements–the system really does force us all to compromise in the voting booth, unless we are ideologues who luck into being able to support an ideologue who matches us. I don’t think that happens too often.

  • zephyr

    Dean, speaking as an issue oriented voter it would be foolish to switch positions based on whether someone (of either party) ticks me off. I lean liberal for the simple reason that reality and morality are better represented on that side of the divide, of course ymmv. It would make no sense for anyone to switch positions on an issue merely because they were in a snit about someones elses behavior. That doesn’t mean people won’t do it but it does mean those who do were pretty lax in thier convictions (integrity) in the first place.

  • SteveK

    2nd post… 1st is “awaiting moderation

    America Elect states that President Obama thinks “Most illegal immigrants should be able to stay in the US, with some exceptions” based on these actions by, and quotes from, him.

    • Send 1,200 National Guard troops to southern border
    • Crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants
    • America has nothing to fear from today’s immigrants
    • We need comprehensive reform, like McCain used to support
    • Need to look at different aspects of immigration reform
    • Deporting 12 million people is ridiculous and impractical
    • Immigrants are scapegoats for high unemployment rates
    • Illegals shouldn’t work; but should have path to citizenship
    • Do a better job patrolling the Canadian and Mexican borders
    • Give immigrants who are here a rigorous path to citizenship
    • Solve the driver’s license issue with immigration reform
    • Extend welfare and Medicaid to immigrants
    • Support the DREAM Act for the children of illegal immigrants
    • YES on continuing federal funds for declared “sanctuary cities”
    • YES on giving Guest Workers a path to citizenship
    • YES on establishing a Guest Worker program
    • YES on building a fence along the Mexican border
    • NO on declaring English as the official language of the US government

    Saying that President Obama thinks, “Most illegal immigrants should be able to stay in the US, with some exceptions” based on the above criteria is at best silly and at worst a disguised partisan attack.

    I’m sure however that it will be used by all “I am not a Republicans” to try and make the case that American Elect is most certainly a “I am not a Republican” too.

  • Zephyr: Well there’s the rub isn’t it? As I already said, on the issues I’ve already decided I support Obama so obnoxious supporters of his are not too likely to make me change my mind. On the other hand, if the election were closer on the issues for me, it might be a different story.

    If like me you have varying opinions based on the issues, you often find yourself leaning toward one candidate on some issues and another candidate on others. Then other things may come into play, such as how much you trust the candidate and the people who surround that candidate.

    Then again I will also admit to being ornery: although I do not believe a candidate should be blamed for everything that candidate’s supporters say or do, I am not at all above making my final call based on things like sending a clear “frack you” message to one side or the other. Especially if I’m wavering already.

    Also, even if I’ve decided I already like a candidate, being rude to me about it just makes it less likely that you’ll be able to persuade me to change my vote. I -am- open to persuasion most of the time, but you’re not going to persuade me of anything by browbeating me or casting aspersions at me. I don’t think you can persuade most people that way, so if persuasion is your goal then it matters how you behave I think.

    I was about to respond to SteveK for example, until I read his last line, and then I realized there was no reason I should want to talk to this person. He has nothing to say of interest to me. If I were considering voting for a Republican, all he’d have done at this point was ensure my vote stayed Republican; he has lost all ability to persuade me of anything. And if you don’t think that stuff matters in an election, well, I think you’re wrong.

    By the way I went back in to Americans Elect and answered a few more questions, and reviewed a few of my answers and found I’d accidentally entered a few of them wrong (wording can be tricky sometimes). The results came out mostly the same, only now it looks like the guy I mostly agree with is Mike Bloomberg of New York, with a whopping 57%, with Bernie Sanders, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul the next closest. The point still stands though: no perfect candidate.

    In some ways it’s nice not to be easily pigeonholed, but what I usually find is that it really just gets you contempt from people on both sides. Some people seem to prefer an outright enemy to someone who is open to persuasion. [shrug]

  • zephyr

    Needless to say, you can’t please everyone. All you can do is what you believe is right, honest, and fair – and hope you’re not wrong. Of course there are no perfect candidates, but there are some obvious smellers and these can be culled from consideration pretty quickly (at least by non-partisans). I’ll admit to being pretty judgemental about this stuff.

  • roro80

    “I notice no shortage of people whoo seem to feel that the Tea Party would prevent them from supporting Republicans, just for example”

    That’s not because Tea Partiers are “obnoxious”. It’s because they’re wrong.

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