WSJ's Brendan Miniter argues that Republicans shouldn't move to the center by embracing McCain and McCainism, because "[c]onservatives can and do win elections for the Republican Party." That may be true. The problem is that McCain doesn't have to run as a Republican. He can run as a third-party candidate, Perot-style. Isn't it, in fact, intuitively obvious that that's what McCain will do, once he's sufficiently infuriated by his rejection by GOP conservatives? ... And he might win. Polls show voters are dissatisfied with both parties, no? Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote despite being labeled (unfairly or not) as wacky. That's a good base to start with. ... McCain would steal both moderate GOPs and moderate Dems. Suddenly the Republicans would too have to worry about the center, in a way they maybe wouldn't if they were just running against a Democrat. ... 3:39 A.M.
In fact, it's not "intuitively obvious" at all. A McCain candidacy would doom his career as a Republican in the Senate and cause him to be defeated in the next GOP primary in Arizona. And, as I wrote before, there's no reason to think that a third-party candidate could win the presidency absent extraordinary circumstances:
[W]e 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 addition, as Brownstein points out, winning the electoral college would be difficult to impossible -- "the strongest [third-party] 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."
Even though third party candidacies are wildly unrealistic, Kaus, Brownstein, Joe Trippi and others keep touting them because they make great copy. So what if they'll never succeed?
Previous entries in this series:
-Brownstein falls for centrist third party fantasy (4/25/05)
-The moderate party fantasy (3/27/05)
-The "party-in-a-laptop" bubble (11/15/04)
-Futurist nonsense (11/2/04)