Jimmy’s Colorado Politics Column | Rigged? Yes — against 3rd parties
Written by Jimmy at the Crossroads on March 2, 2021
At CPAC on Sunday, former President Donald Trump again declared, “This election was rigged.” Guess what? He’s right.
In fact, almost every election is rigged — in favor of Republican and Democratic candidates. That’s because of our two-party system, a steady feature of the American republic since 1860 that isn’t going anywhere.
It was recently reported that Republican Norma Anderson, former state representative, and Democrat Albus Brooks, former Denver City councilman, have left their respective parties and gone unaffiliated. They join 42% of active registered voters in Colorado, up from 35% in 2016.
Some have looked at voter registration numbers — as well as polls showing most Americans are displeased with the two major parties and clamoring for a third party (62% according to Gallup) — and concluded that a third party may be viable. But one would be foolish to think these numbers prove a third party can succeed.
Since November, there’s been chatter that Trump might back a new MAGA or Patriot Party. In his speech Sunday, Trump explicitly shot this down.
“You know, they kept saying, he’s going to start a brand-new party. We have the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s going to unite and be stronger than ever before. I am not starting a new party. That was fake news, fake news.”
While Trump explained a third party would “divide our vote so that you can never win” (an historical fact), there’s a bigger reason why it would fail: It is inherently and structurally infeasible.
The Republican Party was formed in 1856 as the Whig Party was dying out. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the GOP’s first president, establishing a two-party system of Republicans and Democrats. I’m terrible at math, but I’m pretty sure that’s 161 years we’ve been at this Republicans-versus-Democrats thing.
Third parties come and go. While a few stick around, they mostly siphon off small percentages of the vote. Independents and third-party candidates have occasionally succeeded in particular states for high-profile positions like governor or senator, such as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and former Reform Party governor Jesse Ventura (Minnesota). While that’s certainly doable in unique circumstances, it’s very rare.
Here in Colorado, Tom Tancredo offers the closest similar example. In 2010, Dan Maes was the Republican nominee for governor. After he was exposed as a fraud, most Republicans disowned him. Tancredo ran as the Constitution Party nominee and garnered 36.4% of the vote, but still lost to John Hickenlooper’s 51.1%. (Maes netted 11.1%.) The Constitution Party hasn’t run a viable candidate since.
In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president as an independent. He managed nearly 20% of the popular vote, helping secure Bill Clinton’s victory against Bush. Yet Perot didn’t win a single electoral vote. The Electoral College necessarily and intentionally means a candidate or party must be competitive nationally.
In 1912, Republican William Howard Taft ran for reelection. Woodrow Wilson was the Democrat and former President Teddy Roosevelt jumped in as the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate. Republican votes split between Taft and Roosevelt. Wilson won a clear victory with Roosevelt #2.
A Trump MAGA Party would be akin to Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party: A personality-based party created to support and espouse the agenda and persona of one person. What kind of staying power is there for a personality-based party? Ask the Bull Moose and Constitution Party guys.
Realistically, the two-party system is rigged in favor of Republicans and Democrats. In Europe’s parliamentary systems, their elections are based on parties, not candidates. Consequently, third parties can prosper and, because legislative coalitions are formed after an election (as opposed to before an election, as in the U.S.), they have real influence.
America’s Electoral College inherently makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for a third party to win any electoral votes. Furthermore, influential political parties descend from the presidential tickets. That’s why only a few independents serve in Congress, they caucus with Democrats or Republicans, and there are no Greens or Libertarians.
State election laws also advantage major parties. In 2010, Republican Maes barely squeaked into double digits (but still did). That’s important because, in Colorado, political parties must hit 10% in a previous gubernatorial election to have “major party status.” Major parties — almost always Republicans and Democrats — can raise money twice in a cycle, both during primaries and general elections, and get top billing on ballots. Not a single Republican or Democrat in the General Assembly will vote to change that. Nationwide, the system structurally benefits Republicans and Democrats.
No matter how many unaffiliated voters there are, the only way in which you can actually advance a political agenda in America is within the Republican or Democratic Party. It’s been this way since 1860. There’s no reason to think that will change, so reforming one of the two parties has better odds than forming a new one.