The centrist/Internet third party meme appears to be catching on. Sadly, the latest victim is Ron Brownstein, one of the best political journalists working today. He begins the column by quoting Joe Trippi, the Johnny Appleseed of this stupid idea:
MoveOn, and groups like it on the left and right, chisel at the power of the major political parties by providing an alternative source of campaign funds and volunteers. But otherwise, the two parties that have defined American political life since the 1850s have been largely immune from the centrifugal current of the Internet era.
Joe Trippi, a principal architect of Howard Dean's breakthrough Internet strategy in the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, is one of many analysts who believe that may soon change. The Internet, he says, could ignite a serious third-party presidential bid in 2008.
...Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively. "Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he says.
Brownstein does concede that this is harder than Trippi makes it sound, but he's still wildly unrealistic:
The hurdles for an independent presidential candidate remain formidable. Even one that attracted a competitive share of the popular vote might have trouble winning many electoral college votes; the strongest candidate could still face the syndrome of finishing second almost everywhere, trailing Republicans in the red states and Democrats in the blue. To have any chance, an independent would need to nearly run the table in battleground states — like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that don't tilt decisively to either side.
Yet if the two parties continue on their current trajectories, the backdrop for the 2008 election could be massive federal budget deficits, gridlock on problems like controlling healthcare costs, furious fights over ethics and poisonous clashes over social issues and Supreme Court appointments. A lackluster economy that's squeezing the middle-class seems a reasonable possibility too.
In such an environment, imagine the options available to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he doesn't win the 2008 Republican nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now that he's dropped his flirtation with running for mayor of New York. If the two Vietnam veterans joined for an all-maverick independent ticket, they might inspire a gold rush of online support — and make the two national parties the latest example of the Internet's ability to threaten seemingly impregnable institutions.
Allow me to quote myself to explain why this is such nonsense:
Almost everyone who's had significant online fundraising success in politics has done it by appealing to partisans, who by definition are loyal to a party. And even if the "Internet candidate" could raise $100 million, we have this little thing in political science called Duverger's Law. As the introductory political science text I teach to freshman puts it, "In any election where a single winner is chosen by plurality vote (whoever gets the most votes wins), there is a strong tendency for serious competitors to be reduced to two because people tend to vote strategically." Why would we expect a third-party challenge to overcome this dynamic? The two parties have vast advantages in financial resources, mobilization, and voter loyalty. To convince people you could win, you'd have to create an inordinate amount of momentum. And to do so, you'd have to have a constituency that supported you -- the Internet is not an ideology or a voting bloc...
In fact, the lesson from this election is that the parties and major party candidates are adopting the Internet into their playbook, just as big business did a few years ago. Technology hasn't repealed the laws of politics, just as it didn't repeal the laws of business.
The dynamics of Duverger's Law are what Brownstein doesn't understand. It's a giant coordination game. Even the voters who would prefer a centrist third-party candidate have no incentive to support him if he is in third place because doing so will hurt their second choice. Absent extraordinary circumstances, it's almost impossible to dislodge the parties and create a dynamic where a third party candidate can become one of the top two contenders. This is why so few liberals supported Nader in 2004, and why Perot lost by large margins in 1992 and 1996.
My advice for Brownstein - next time, call Gary Cox at UCSD, the author of Making Votes Count, which is the key political science book in this area. Don't send a hack consultant to do a political scientist's job!