Catch of the Day: Third-Party Fantasies

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Catch goes to Ed Kilgore, who not only gets right that third-party presidential efforts are a pipe dream, but also is excellent on the ideological type of third-party nonsense:

The idea that there is some "hidden majority" for any particular ideology that isn't manifested in actual electoral behavior is the perpetual fool's gold of American politics. That it is repeatedly pursued by otherwise smart and famous people doesn't change its foolishness.

On specifics, he's good on the Beltway consensus fantasy of popular support for a deficit-hawk third party based on tax increases and cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He also is good on the fantasy of a hidden libertarian majority:

As for libertarianism as the great unknown Truth that will strike novices like a bolt from the blue, what's so complicated about it? It mainly seems to exert a magnetic attraction among very successful people who like to be told they should be able to keep all their money and spend it on whatever they wish, and adolescent males who view any frustration of their wish-fulfillment as unnatural.

Once upon a time, the hidden majority was mainly a fantasy of socialists and others on the left; there's still plenty of that, and it's still just as wrong, too.

One reason all of these theories are fantasies? Most people just don't care enough about politics to have developed (or accepted) deep-seated and conceptually complex ideologies. And to the extent that they do have something we would call ideology, it's most likely just adopted from what the current parties say. Which isn't going to be a basis for a third-party run.

At any rate, the relatively successful third-party runs of the 20th century were generally associated with unpopular presidents seeking (or at least eligible for) re-election. The one major exception was Ross Perot 's 1996 quest, which was only a shadow of his 1992 campaign. The other solid third-party or independent attempts -- 1912, 1948, 1968, 1980 and 1992 -- were years in which an unpopular president wanted another term. Which means that 2016 won't be fertile ground for a third-party attempt, regardless of what happens to President Barack Obama in his final three years in office.

And: nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net