Party Animal

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The media are reporting that former President Trump wants to start his own political party—the Patriot Party or the MAGA Party.  His effort will probably fail, but not before he complicates the GOP’s efforts to return to power.

Our political system has almost no room for third parties—any political party other than the Democratic or the Republican Party—for several reasons:

We elect the President nationwide, governors and senators statewide, and congressmen and state lawmakers by single member districts.  Our elections have become so expensive that few organizations other than the Democrats, the Republicans, and the interest groups affiliated with them can raise the funds necessary to win the presidency, or state offices, or a large number of lawmakers.  And parties that can’t elect officials can’t survive for long.

Moreover, our election laws, drafted by legislatures in which more than 99% of the members are Republicans and Democrats, discriminate heavily in favor of the two major parties and against any party that would challenge their dominance.  

For example, few candidates or parties can win any votes if their names don’t appear on the ballot.  But at the state level, election laws make ballot access for third party candidates as well as for candidates running as independents very difficult.  They must frequently submit large numbers of signatures on petitions or pay large filing fees for their names to get on the ballot.  These hurdles reduce the number of candidates other than Democrats and Republicans whose names the voters will see and can vote for at the polls, and thereby reduce the threat third parties and independents hold for our two major parties.

At the national level, campaign finance laws provide for federal financial support for candidates seeking the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, for the parties’ respective national nominating conventions, and for the general election campaigns waged by the parties’ presidential nominees, provided recipients agree to federally imposed spending limits.  The last presidential candidate to actually have his campaign financed by the federal government was John McCain in 2008.  Barack Obama wisely chose to have his campaign financed exclusively through private contributions, and thereby escaped federal campaign spending limits, as have all other presidential nominees since then.  Still, the offer of federal aid to the Democrats and the Republicans remains on the table:  The federal government will financially support the Democrats and the Republicans, but not third party or independent candidates unless they show they can show they can win public support without federal aid—Catch 22.

None of this is to say third party challenges are impossible, or that third parties can’t affect the outcome of an election.  In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt, running as the Progressive Party nominee for President against Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, split the GOP vote and handed the presidency to Wilson.  

But the 1912 race is a rarity.  Since the Democrats and Republicans first squared off for the Presidency in 1856, Roosevelt is the only third party candidate to have won more popular and electoral votes than a major party presidential nominee (Taft).  Third parties win few, if any, electoral votes in presidential elections and few, if any, seats in legislatures.  Of Congress’s 535 members, all but 2 are either Democrats or Republicans.  Besides, if the third party is organized around a particular person, it will last no longer than that person’s interest in it.  Once Roosevelt and Ross Perot concluded they could win nothing through their political movements and therefore abandoned them, their movements faded away.

So where does this leave Trump and his prospective Patriot/MAGA Party?  In the short run, assuming he can actually launch it, he could make himself its presidential nominee in 2024, assuming he couldn’t win the GOP nomination even though the Senate failed to ban him from politics.  If so, as Roosevelt did in 1912, he might well split the Republican Party and thereby help the Democrats retain the White House.  But to do so, he’ll still have to overcome the hurdles erected by the Democrats and the Republicans designed to keep him and other third party candidates off election ballots.

But should Trump be banned, he won’t be able to be on the ballot again even if his party is successfully launched.  Whoever takes Trump’s place as the party’s presidential nominee would almost certainly win far less attention, and far fewer votes, than Trump might have won.  This would certainly be good news for the GOP—which, although no member of Congress to date has publicly admitted it, may help explain why a growing number of senators may be open to his impeachment conviction and banning.  

There are, however, other ways and means by which Trump and his followers may be able to retain some influence within the GOP, possibly to its detriment.  They’ll be the subject of future columns.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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