The third party fever dream

Why do some journalists keep predicting a major challenge to the two-party system?

National Journal editorial director Ron Fournier is a respected journalist with years of distinguished service as an Associated Press correspondent and editor. So why is he issuing hyperbolic warnings about how “social change and a disillusioned electorate threaten the entire two-party system”?

In a story posted online Thursday, Fournier leaps from a hypothetical 2016 third-party presidential bid by Republican senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul to an elaborate scenario in which the survival of the major parties is at risk. He quotes both GOP Rep. Reid Ribble and Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik predicting, in nearly identical terms, the emergence of “third and even fourth parties.”

In reality, while changes to the party structure are of course possible and third-party candidates do occasionally emerge, the rules of congressional and presidential elections create dynamics that make it extremely difficult for third-party or independent candidates to succeed in the United States—and even harder for a third party to exist as a sustained institution.

What’s striking is that Fournier has been making this prediction for years in various forms, and that he keeps making it even after the previous claims have been proven false. A sampling from his past work:

  • “The next presidential race may be ripe for a maverick mold-breaking candidate [or] perhaps even a third-party ticket. That’s how hungry Americans are for leadership traits that seemed lacking during the Katrina crisis.” — 11/13/05
  • “Politicians who pay little heed could find frustrated voters banding together and creating a third-party movement.” — 12/26/05
  • “A third-party presidential campaign could catch fire in 2008, while the Iraq war and the Internet will leave indelible marks on the political landscape, according to leading Democratic and Republican strategists.” — 11/27/06
  • “Add Federal Express founder Fred Smith to the list of prominent Americans who believe a third party could emerge if Democrats and Republicans don’t get their acts together.” — 12/6/12
  • “I agree that a revolution is brewing: a non-violent public upheaval that forces change from within the two-party structure or usurps it… An independent presidential bid is increasingly likely. The rise of new parties is not out of the question.” — 1/14/13
  • Fournier and the politicians and operatives he interviewed are hardly the first politicos to forecast a third-party revolt, of course. His piece this week is just the latest installment in a long pattern of journalists and political operatives predicting a major challenge to the two major parties.

    The reality, however, is more prosaic. While we occasionally observe potential insurgent third parties or major presidential candidacies from figures like John Anderson or Ross Perot, the relentless logic of strategic voting and the adaptive nature of party competition tends to deter such challenges before they arise or cause them to quickly fizzle once they are underway. In particular, actual third-party initiatives in recent years have tended to promote an establishment-oriented centrism that has little natural constituency beyond the political and media elite. (If you don’t believe me, ask Unity ‘08, Americans Elect, Draft Bloomberg, and No Labels!) And even if an insurgent party or candidacy did find a way to appeal to an unrepresented or disaffected swathe of the electorate, the two major parties would very likely find a way to coopt its message and restore stability.

    So why are journalistic predictions on this issue—as on many others—so frequently incorrect? One problem is that reporters often fail to adjust their predictions to the rate at which events occur and/or lack knowledge of the relevant political science. The political world may seem unsustainably pathological and dysfunctional from up close, but we’ve seen long-term stability in the two-party system since the rise of the Republican Party shortly before the Civil War and few competitive third-party presidential candidates since the early 20th century. Our expectation should be that those trends will continue absent strong evidence to the contrary, particularly given the theoretical advantages the major parties have under our system—plurality election to single-member congressional districts, the Electoral College, and more.

    Thankfully, some journalists recognize the problem. This week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman stood out among his peers for his level-headedness on this issue. In a response to Fournier, he writes that while “the rise of a third-party presidential candidate in 2016 is entirely plausible,” he is “much more dubious” about the idea that the two-party system is in disarray

    I am fully aware of the paradigm-busting power of modern technology… However, I still believe that the institutional biases in the system—some of them embedded in the Constitution, others in federal and state laws, such as Georgia’s difficult ballot-access laws—dictate the existence of a two-party system.

    History tells us that third parties come and they usually go; on rare occasions, they stick around and eventually replace one of its predecessors. The time may indeed be ripe for one of those periodic upheavals.

    However, once the smoke clears and the system stabilizes, it will revert to its traditional bipolar, two-party nature.

    Fortunately, the playing field for competition to traditional punditry is now far more open and competitive. The third-party fever dream may never die, but reality-based commentary like Bookman’s may at least strengthen the incentives for other pundits to be more measured in their predictions about the future.

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    Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: