James Carville put a note up on the wall of his campaign headquarters for Bill Clinton in 1992, “The economy, stupid.” It was a reminder of one of the key elements of Democratic campaign and an effort to say on message.
For any third party candidate with dreams of the White House, I suggest something similar: “It’s the electoral college!” Don't ever forget that this constitutional arrangement controls your destiny.
The need to secure 270 electoral votes to win the presidency is the single most important factor in the continued dominance of the two party systems. The two large parties bring to national races extraordinary built in advantages that allows them piece together an Electoral College strategy that gets to 270.
Small parties, independent candidates, or those who bolt from the main parties do not have these advantages. Only once has a third party displaced the main party and that was in 1860.
It explains why the most significant third party challenges have been splinters from one of the main parties: Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert La Follette in 1924, Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968 and John Anderson in 1980. H. Ross Perot in 1992 is a notable exception.
His 19% of the vote = just under 20 millions votes = 0 electoral votes.
And therein lies the problem for the newly nominated ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld of the Libertarian Party.
Each of the main third party challenges in the 20th century had something that the Johnson-Weld ticket lacks: a constituency largely based in one of the two main parties or one that straddles the party coalitions.
Libertarians appeal to a very narrow slice of the electorate, won’t have the funding to truly compete against the main parties, and are not concentrated in enough states to make an impact in the electoral college.
In this unusual year, the Libertarians may appeal to Republicans who are appalled at the rise of Trump, committed to the Never Trump crusade, who also won’t feel a political backlash by aligning with the Libertarian Party. That’s going to be a relatively small group of Republicans.
There won’t be any equivalent movement among Democrats. Democratic libertarians do exist, they just won’t vote for Johnson-Weld.
Weld has publicly stated that he thinks the Libertarians can win enough states to deny Trump or Clinton the 270 electoral votes needed, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives.
Yet consider the obstacles they need to overcome:
• With Johnson as the nominee four years ago, the party only took 3.55% of the vote in New Mexico, where he served as Governor for eight years.
• Libertarians have never received more than 1% of the popular vote.
• No third party challenge has won Electoral College votes since 1968.
A serious challenge to the two party system may yet come but its prospects are bleak. American electoral history in the 20th century is notable for the many times a third party challenge emerged: just about every 12 years (Louisiana Senator Huey Long had planned a third party run in 1936.) But in our contemporary era, despite partisan dealignment, we have only seen the two parties continue their dominance of the national landscape.
Quixotic candidates run to make a point (think Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan) but the Electoral College makes it virtually impossible for them to run to win, even a state here or there.