In Good Times and in Bad: the Presidential Vote and the Third Party Tradition in the United States

At FireDogLake, diarist inoljt has republished an examination of the third party presidential vote which first appeared at The Politikal Blog last May.  The piece contains a number of interesting charts and graph.  Inoljt writes:
Presidential election results are often pictured through electoral college maps, a useful and simple tool. Looking at the competition of the two parties throughout time provides a quite interesting exercise. Certain states turn blue, then red, then blue again. Others stay the same color. One election the map is filled with red; the next election blue makes a comeback. And on and on it goes.

This is in fact quite deceiving. What the electoral college does not show is the history of third-party challenges to the two-party system. In 1992, for instance, presidential candidate Ross Perot finished with 18.9% of the vote – yet not a single state in the 1992 electoral college showed his third-party run . . .

Let’s take a look, then, at the macro-level trend. Here is a graph of third-party performance throughout the entire history of the United States, since popular voting first started. (The picture here is a small thumbnail of the real graph, which can be found here.)
Inoljt comments:
The data here is also fairly inconclusive. Strong minor party candidacies seem to come and go in no particular order. There are long periods where they get less than 1% of the vote, and times where they regularly break the 10% barrier. To be frank, I was expecting to find a more discernible pattern – say, a strong minor party performance every four or five cycles.  [Emphasis added.] 
Ironically, Inoljt's surprise could have been expected.  It is considered common knowledge among political scientists and mainstream political observers that the rise and fall in the popularity of third party and independent politics over time is effectively dependent upon the state of the economy.  In good economic times, or so the reasoning goes, the public is content, and so the electorate is happy to support the major parties in power, while in bad economic times public discontent results in stronger opposition to the major parties in power.

While this line of argument may seem reasonable to economic determinists and vulgar materialists, the fact is, it is simply false, and suggests that the political scientist or commentator in question just doesn't know what he or she is talking about.  At the same time, however, these individuals are not entirely at fault since American historians and political scientists have devoted so little attention to the third party and independent political tradition in the United States.  Long time readers may recall a series of Poli-Tea posts from late 2009 which took a look at a number of academic articles on the third party and independent tradition in the US.  The third post in that series considered an article by Hirano and Snyder which provided an overview of the scientific literature on the third party and independent political tradition.  H&S write:
Another claim in the literature is that third party electoral success is linked to the state of the economy (Stedman and Stedman, 1950). However, the evidence for a connection between short-term economic fluctuations and third party electoral support is mixed at best . . . The evidence seems more consistent with the conclusion in Herring (1965) that “third parties are bred in prosperity as well as depression.” (p. 19.)  [Emphasis added.]


DLW said...

It seems that one needs to have some political star power or a well-heeled candidate like Perot to mount a significant campaign for president.
And that sort of act both flies against the economic incentives embedded in our system. A willingness of someone to be "self-sacrificial" or ego-driven would clearly not be driven by the state of the economy, which doesn't in and of itself show much regularity either...


Anonymous said...

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored -- 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without federal constitutional amendments.

The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: CO-- 68%, IA --75%, MI-- 73%, MO-- 70%, NH-- 69%, NV-- 72%, NM-- 76%, NC-- 74%, OH-- 70%, PA -- 78%, VA -- 74%, and WI -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE --75%, ME -- 77%, NE -- 74%, NH --69%, NV -- 72%, NM -- 76%, RI -- 74%, and VT -- 75%; in Southern and border states: AR --80%, KY -- 80%, MS --77%, MO -- 70%, NC -- 74%, and VA -- 74%; and in other states polled: CA -- 70%, CT -- 74% , MA -- 73%, MN – 75%, NY -- 79%, WA -- 77%, and WV- 81%.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR (6), CT (7), DE (3), DC (3), ME (4), MI (17), NV (5), NM (5), NY (31), NC (15), and OR (7), and both houses in CA (55), CO (9), HI (4), IL (21), NJ (15), MD (10), MA(12), RI (4), VT (3), and WA (11). The bill has been enacted by DC, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes -- 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


DLW said...

The issue is that the NPV pretty much subverts the GOP's southern strategy, but it would exacerbate the undue influence of the Mainstream Media.

What if we instead rebooted the electoral college system to make it closer to what the founding fathers intended? They were concerned about the rivalry for the presidency and that was their motivation for making the 2nd place candidate the vice president, ie they wanted to make the election a winner-doesn't-take-all election. But what if we made our early Nov election an "open primary" where we selected our favorite three out of seven candidates and then the electoral college selected the final winner within a week. Then, the winner could pick one of the other six candidates to be her or his VP.

What if? We could even elect the electoral college members with the same sort of election used for the president, so that 1305 electors, three from each congressional district, would do the final selection on our behalf. This would make our most important election both a nation-wide and a local election. The local aspect and the greater number of "competitive candidates", who'd need more than soundbites to stand out from the pack, would trim the influence of the MSM...