Early Returns

Door Is Wide Open for Third-Party Candidates

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

I'm going to admit something that I'd rather not, because it's exactly the kind of thing that gets massively overhyped. And yet it's true, so I might as well say it: 2020 is setting up to be a very good year for a third-party presidential candidate.

Nate Silver said the same thing in a discussion over at FiveThirtyEight: "An unpopular president and an opposition party slightly in disarray sounds a lot like … 1980 or 1992, and those were years that invited third-party challenges." 

The key, at least over the last hundred years or so, is an unpopular president up for re-election. So not just the two cycles Silver identifies, but also 1968, 1948 and even 1912 all fit that bill.

It's not so much that the opposition party is particularly "in disarray" -- it's that all out-parties look weak after a new president has just taken office, and it's often hard to picture them getting their act together. Meanwhile, the president's party may not be very excited about his or her re-election, which leaves them open to third-party runs. 

Of course, it doesn't always happen. It actually requires someone to step up and run, and it more or less has to be someone that the media will take seriously enough that ordinary voters, or at least many of them, will really consider defecting from their party's candidate. There's no way of knowing whether that will happen; just because lots of famous people are dropping hints that they are interested doesn't mean they'll actually do it. We'll have to wait and see.

If a relatively strong third-party run is a symptom of normal political conditions, so is the likely limit to the success of any such candidate. Sometimes, as in 1948, it turns out that the president was in better shape than conventional wisdom had it. Almost every time, the out-party winds up looking a whole lot better by September of the election year than it did two years earlier. And then party identification kicks in as voters finally start paying attention, while the logic of first-past-the-post elections starts grinding down the third-place candidate, as even voters who dislike the party nominees don't want to waste their vote. I don't want to say that it's impossible that a strong third-party candidate could win, but it would take a lot of flukish things happening (and, yes, we all know after 2016 that flukes can happen). More likely a "strong" third-party run winds up with well under 20 percent of the vote, and zero states. 

But, yeah, if Donald Trump doesn't become more popular in the next year or so, I won't be surprised at all if we get a serious, and seriously overhyped, third-party candidate in 2020. 

1. Lee Drutman on identity politics and the choices Democrats face. 

2. Barry Berke, Noah Bookbinder and Norman Eisen at Brookings lay out the legal case that Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice ...

3. ... while Elizabeth Drew sketches out potential articles of impeachment against Trump. I continue to think the case for impeachment is strong enough to be perfectly legitimate, but not so strong -- yet -- that the evidence demands it. But the special prosecutor's office is hard at work, and we'll know more soon.

4. Fred Kaplan on the history of negotiating with North Korea

5. My Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Trump's long obsession with his supposedly high IQ and overall brain power. 

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    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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