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Monday, December 05, 2005

Will 2006 Be The Year of Third Parties?

Facing what seems to be an unending string of corruption charges and scandals, public confidence in US politicians is bottoming out. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 26% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans have "the same priorities for the country" as those surveyed. Plus, the Iraq war has become problematic, especially for those in Congress who supported it early on.

Republicans are worried about losing their majority in the House in next year's election... but there's no guarantee voters will fall in line behind Democrats. Third parties such as the Libertarians, the Greens, the conservative American Independent Party and the Populists all threaten to siphon votes from both the GOP and the Democrats.

Historically, the odds of third-party candidates are very poor. Of all the third-pary/independent candidates who have run for President since 1904, only three (Theodore Roosevelt [Progressive, 1912], Robert LaFollette [Progressive, 1924] and Ross Perot [Independent, 1992]) scored more than 15% of the popular vote. Between difficulties in getting on the ballot and a "winner take all" voting system in many areas, plus mainstream media's focus on the established parties, the two-party system seems locked in. Third parties, however, are counting on a combination of public disgust with "politics as usual," blogs and other new media, and perhaps even an established, high-profile politician (or celebrity) to defect from one of the major parties to shake things up. Controversies such as the Iraq war, immigration and gay/lesbian rights could also help to further radicalize voters on both the left and right, who might seek out third parties more in line with their views.

It's too early to tell whether 2006 will be anything more than another year in which alternative parties generate more buzz than votes. Even if politicians continue to get caught with their hands in the cookie jar, voters might seek alternative party candidates but not abandon their parties.

It's even harder to tell if we're witnessing the beginning of a major sea change in the way we practice politics in the US. Even a disruptive event such as a sustained spike in energy prices or a scandal on the magnitude of Watergate might not cause that. The change might come first to local elections, and then to Congressional districts where candidates of both established parties have been embroiled in scandal.

Source: MSNBC