Early Returns

A Third-Party President? Good Luck

If you want change, start from within the two major parties. Plus, Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Skip the middle man.

Photographer: J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

Here we go again. Juleanna Glover writes in the New York Times about just how easy it would be to elect a third-party or independent president. After all, since there are lots of battleground states with lots of electoral votes (and California alone has 55 of them), it's easy, apparently, to imagine those going third-party.

Well, no. 

It is true that 2020 may turn out to be the kind of election that attracts relatively serious third-party candidates, with an unpopular incumbent eligible for re-election -- if Donald Trump is still unpopular by then; there's still a long time to go. That's been the formula for very different candidates such as Ross Perot in 1992, John Anderson in 1980 and George Wallace in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson started off the election year as a candidate but then dropped out. 

So I won't be very surprised if a third-party candidate in 2020 does better than any since Perot. That's still a long way from winning, however. 

Part of the problem is that it's easy to (as Glover does) brainstorm a bunch of potentially appealing candidates. It's a lot harder, however, to get any of them to run. Candidates with a solid future within their party risk that with an independent run; those without that kind of future are, typically, not all that appealing as candidates. It's easy to dream up a perfect bipartisan ticket; Glover suggests Joe Biden and Ben Sasse. But that's almost certainly a pipe dream. Would Biden really be disloyal to the Democrats? Unlikely. Would Sasse really quit the Republican Party for a long-shot chance at the No. 2 slot? Implausible.

Hypotheticals like this one lean heavily on polling in which large numbers of voters claim to be hostile to both parties and open to an independent candidate. But we know that what people tell pollsters in this context doesn't typically match their behavior. There are a whole lot of people out there who claim to be independent but just happen to always suppose the Republican, or the Democratic, candidate for most offices. One of the big functions of campaigns is to trigger partisanship even among those who don't believe they are partisan. As Trump can tell you, that will work even for the most unlikely candidates. 

I'm not saying that a third-party or independent presidential victory is impossible. It's just that it's no coincidence that it hasn't happened; very strong structural reasons exist for supporting the two-party system in the U.S., and that's not going to change anytime soon. The truth is that those who want to change the nation are always going to be best off trying to change one of the parties -- something surprisingly possible to do -- than to create a whole new one and have it win the highest-stakes election. 

1. Margaret Peters at the Monkey Cage on Republicans, business lobbying and immigration.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage, Connor Ewing and Charles Zug on the history of the State of the Union speech.

3. A very nice back and forth on the nature of the State of the Union speech from FiveThirtyEight's Perry Bacon Jr. and Julia Azari. I think she gets the better of it, but he makes some worthwhile points, too. 

4. My Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith on Trump's economic dreams.

5. And the U.S. is keeping more information about the war in Afghanistan secret. Jessica Donati and Craig Nelson report.

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

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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