DO THIRD PARTIES MATTER?
Ever since 1992, when the Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran for President, independent and third-party candidates for office have enjoyed a resurgence in American elections. Perot got nearly 20 million votes that year, and his emphasis on the deficit pushed the Democrats and Republicans to work on balancing the budget.
This election year, the Green Party's Ralph Nader and the Reform Party's Patrick Buchanan are trying to pick up where Perot left off. Nader, a longtime consumer advocate and civic crusader, and Buchanan, a former White House speechwriter and television commentator, are both well-known across the country. And, compared with most minor-party candidates, they've been getting a lot of attention.
At first glance, Nader and Buchanan seem to have similar complaints about the two major parties. Nader says they're "converging more and more into a huge vested-interest money pot," while Buchanan calls them "Xerox copies of one another."
Both men criticize Bush and Gore for supporting the World Trade Organization, saying America's sovereignty is being undermined by international bodies controlled by corporate interests. But they differ on nearly everything else. Nader says corporations and the wealthy have concentrated "too much power in the hands of too few people." His top priorities: full public financing of elections and health-care coverage for all. Buchanan, by contrast, is running as a social conservative committed to making abortion illegal, eliminating affirmative action, condemning homosexuality, and "making America a godly nation again."
HOW TO LOSE AND STILL WIN
While both candidates appear to be long shots, neither needs to win to declare victory. Under today's federal election laws, parties that get more than 5 percent of the vote for President qualify for a share of the public financing for the following election. Because the Reform Party won 8 percent of the vote in 1996, Buchanan has received $12.6 million in federal funding this year. Nader hopes to win 5 percent this year in order to build the Greens into a viable force by 2004.
The space in American politics for third-party efforts seems to have grown larger in recent years. In 1998, pro wrestler Jesse Ventura won Minnesota's Governorship as a Reform candidate, thanks in part to the support of younger voters. And the Internet is making it easier for such efforts to reach the public.
Still, third-party candidates face many obstacles, starting with our winner-take-all system, in which several parties may compete for an office, but the only one that gets any representation is the one whose candidate gets the most votes. This turns minor candidates into spoilers, who draw votes away from one major-party candidate and end up helping to elect the other (see "The Year of the Spoiler," page 28).
But while many see a third-party choice as a wasted vote, strong third party showings have often advanced ideas that were later adopted by the major parties and became law. Third parties were the first to press for ending slavery, giving women the right to vote, banning child labor, enacting the 40-hour work week, and other reforms. While the parties did not survive, the innovations did. Similarly, the people who voted for Perot in 1992 didn't elect him, but they did persuade the major parties to change their attitudes toward government spending.
Nader has already had an important influence on this election. In response to his challenge, Gore has borrowed some of Nader's themes, such as attacking big businesses. With the close race between Gore and Bush, the third-party vote for Nader could make a big difference on Election Day.
The man who launched his career as a consumer crusader 35 years ago by pointing out the dangers of a sporty but unsafe little General Motors car called the Corvair is at it again, running for President on the Green Party line. In his 1996 presidential bid, Ralph Nader refused to raise money and attracted barely 1 percent of the vote. But this time he insists he's serious.
Nader, 66, has a long history of public service, championing the causes of consumers, the environment, and economic justice. With his candidacy, he is advocating universal health care, environmental protection, campaign finance reform, and action against urban poverty, and he is opposing free trade.
Nader is the first to acknowledge that he is not the best campaigner. Gawky and prone to long speeches, he is shy and painfully uncomfortable with asking people for their votes.
Patrick J. Buchanan
Patrick J. Buchanan, who shocked the Republican Party in the past two presidential elections with early primary successes in his Iow-budget, insurgent campaigns, is bedeviling the GOP again in 2000, this time as the candidate of the Reform Party.
Buchanan, 61, has vowed to "rescue our lady, America" from the "moral pit into which she has fallen." To do so, he opposes abortion rights, free trade, immigration, and U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts.
A fiery speaker and accomplished political strategist, Buchanan relishes the role of political guerrilla fighter. He is a host of CNN's Crossfire when not running for office, and his resume includes stints as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and director of communications for President Ronald Reagan.
FOCUS: Third Parties Launch New Ideas; Teddy Roosevelt Takes on President Taft
To help students understand the role of America's smaller political parties,specifically how they contribute to the dialogue on key issues--and how a third party outpolled one of the two major parties in 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt took on President William Howard Taft.
* Are third-party candidates refusing to face reality when they run in an election they know they'll lose?
* What issue could offer a third-party candidate a real chance to win the White House?
* Would you vote for a third-party candidate for President? CLASSROOM STRATEGIES
Role-play/Writing: Have students write 200- to 300-word arguments explaining why Nader or Buchanan is the best candidate for President. Nader writers focus on "too much power in the hands of too few people." What is he saying? Buchanan writers focus on "making America a godly nation again." What does he mean?
Discussion: Direct students to the list on page 11 of the reforms first proposed by third parties. What do the phrases "giving women the right to vote" and "banningchild labor" say about America's values at the time these reforms were debated? Can a third party change the nation's values?
Web Watch: See the official Web sites of Pat Buchanan www. gopatgo2000.com/ and Ralph Nader www.votenader.com/
History Debate: Students can debate the idea that Theodore Roosevelt made a mistake in 1912 by running as a Progressive, splitting the normally Republican vote, and helping to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Should citizens refrain from casting third-party votes if those votes might ultimately help the "wrong" major-party candidate? Or should they simply vote for the best candidate regardless of his or her chances? How might that decision differ if the U.S. were a parliamentary rather than a presidential-legislative democracy?
Web Watch: Log on to the Theodore Roosevelt Association at www. theodore roosevelt.org/For information on Taft, including data on the 1912 election, log on to the Internet Public Library, www. ipl.org/ref/POTUS/whtaft.html