The Other Loophole in Duverger’s Law

In the previous chapter I revealed a gaping loophole in Duverger’s Law. A new political party which exploits this loophole could grow huge, possibly eclipsing one or both of the existing major parties.

I promised two loopholes. Here comes the second. Let us start by reviewing the three rules a third political party must comply with in order to succeed:

Rule 1: A successful third party must be moderate enough to win somewhere.

Rule 2: A third party needs some principles.

Rule 3: A third party must have a base of voters/activists that is indifferent to the difference between the Democrats and Republicans.

Rule 3 applies mainly to three-way races. When only two candidates are trying to fill a seat, money, activism, and positioning close to the local center win the race. In a conservative district it is possible for a Constitution or right-leaning Libertarian Party candidate to beat a Republican in a head-to-head contest. In a liberal district it is possible for an unreconstructed Green Party candidate to beat a Democrat.

To do so still requires some concessions to moderation. It still requires organization, money, and a credible candidate. But it is possible. The lesser of two evils dilemma does not apply. You get the votes of those who like your candidate. The press either covers your candidate or has no race to cover.

Here’s the unspoken fact of American politics: we do not have a two-party system; we have a 1.5-party system! State legislatures gerrymander the districts. A Democratic legislature will try to cram the conservatives into a small number of ultraconservative districts. A Republican legislature will try to cram the liberals into a small number of ultraliberal districts. For this reason the Republicans supported minority dominated districts – until they were chided for their ideological inconsistency.

Such lopsided districts create opportunities for third parties. I did a study of a dozen states back in 2001. I found that of the states I sampled, most had at least 1/3 of their lower state house races uncontested by the major parties. Libertarians who ran in these districts fared four times better on average than those who ran in three-way races. I suspect the same would hold for other third parties, but I didn’t tally such at the time.

As long as gerrymandering continues, there will be opportunities for third parties willing to focus their efforts on two-way contests. Triangulation is not necessary, though it can still be useful. A Green candidate who advocates market based solutions to environmental problems and inequality can pick up a big chunk of the Republican minority in a left-leaning district. A Libertarian can pick up some of the Democratic minority in a right-leaning district via positions on social issues (and more if said candidate uses some of the egalitarian ideas here at www.holisticpolitics.org .)

To make this strategy work requires discipline. Among other factors, it requires:

  • A focus on state and local issues. While U.S. Congressional districts are gerrymandered, they are nearly always contested by the major parties. Unless your third party can outspend one of the two candidates, you will be clobbered by the lesser of two evils dilemma.
  • A willingness to drop out of three-way races. If your party is conservative, drop out if your candidacy would cause a liberal Democrat to beat a [semi-] conservative Republican. Playing the spoiler will only irritate a large portion of your base. If your party is liberal, drop out if your candidate would cause a Republican to win.
  • Anticipation of which districts will be uncontested. Districts shift. Focus your recruitment on areas which are liable to stay within lopsided districts. Recruit heavily after redistricting. Ease up on recruitment and focus on winning where strong during the end of the ten year cycle.
  • Staying away from running serious presidential campaigns. This is a corollary of the first three bullets.

These strategies could be productively applied by the existing minor parties. They are also useful for a new party just getting off the ground. Even with triangulation, a new party will suffer lesser-of-two-evils dilemma for all but its deepest core base until it can build up its resources to the point that it has a chance of winning.

Next: Summary: a Successful Third Party is Possible

Previous: The Real Sweet Spot for a New Political Party

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