Political Hay

Third Wheels

A conservative's guide to minor parties.

By 3.13.08

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Real men don't eat quiche. Real chili doesn't contain beans. Real conservatives don't vote for John McCain. The first two statements are a matter of taste; the third is for some a matter of conviction. Then there are discriminating gastronomists and exacting talk show hosts who treat them as immutable laws.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Brent Bozell argued that McCain can't count on conservatives just because he is the Republican nominee. A few examples illustrate his point. James Dobson said he won't vote, leaving the presidential spot on his ballot blank. Ann Coulter has promised -- it is not clear how seriously -- to vote for Hillary Clinton. There are even a few Obamacons out there -- that is, conservative supporters of Barack Obama.

Such protests votes (and non-votes) won't send the message these disgruntled conservatives intend. If a Democrat is elected, the powers that be will praise the Lord and pass the government programs. Nobody is going to assume that the winning margin was supplied by disaffected Republicans who didn't think McCain was conservative enough. Non-voters motivated by conservative pique will be lost among the millions more who stayed home out of ignorance or apathy.

There is another option, if you don't see a dime's worth of value in the argument that you'd be wasting your vote. Third parties are a venerable American institution (not to be confused with a mental institution). Why, the GOP even began as one. Let's look at a few that might interest disenchanted conservatives:

Constitution Party -- Formerly the U.S. Taxpayer's Party, Ballot Access News ranks it the largest third party in terms of registered voters. Yet most of its members belong to the California state affiliate, the American Independent Party, apparently having joined in the mistaken belief that they were registering as independents.

The Constitution Party nominee will be well to the right of McCain. The party's platform calls for slashing federal spending, abolishing the income tax, ending the Federal Reserve, banning abortion, curbing pornography, and reducing immigration. Rumored 2008 possibilities include "Ten Commandments judge" Roy Moore, former Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and the irrepressible Alan Keyes. Otherwise, they will have to nominate someone obscure.

Before you sign up, be aware that the party's rank-and-file includes an unhealthy number of Christian Reconstructionists, who favor stoning gay people to death, treating adulterers similarly, and otherwise instituting a theocracy. That's not a typo or an Andrew Sullivan blog post; that's what some of these people actually believe. Unsurprisingly, the Constitution Party has never even broken 190,000 votes in a presidential election.

Libertarian Party -- If you prefer keeping government out of your bedroom and boardroom alike, the Libertarian platform might appeal to you. The first Libertarian presidential candidate, John Hospers, got an electoral vote in 1972. The third, Ed Clarke, won just shy of a million votes in 1980.

Libertarians have been hoping for a similar breakthrough ever since. Unless their 2008 nominee is Ron Paul or Bob Barr, this is unlikely. Their presidential vote totals hover between 300,000 and 400,000 whether they nominate media-savvy people like the late Harry Browne or the completely unknown Michael Badnarik. Many conservatives will object to the party's opposition to the war in Iraq and the war on drugs; others will find it socially libertine. Even in government-cutting, there can be too much of a good thing.

In statewide races, Libertarians tend to take votes from Republican candidates. At the presidential level, they don't seem to have much effect either way. Other than allowing small-government voters to pull the lever for a pro-drug legalization party that showcases candidates named Firecracker and Stoner on its website.

Reform Party -- A creation of Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who arguably helped Bill Clinton win in 1992 and 1996, it was once the best chance for a viable third party. It is now a shell.

Before the 2000 election, Reform activists loyal to Perot decided to drive their only real success story, then Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, out of their party by inviting Pat Buchanan to run for its presidential nomination. Once Ventura was gone, the Perotistas turned on Buchanan (Texas Republican insider Tom Pauken's account is the most plausible explanation ever advanced for this odd behavior). Buchanan won the nomination, but the Reform Party never recovered. Its remaining members will probably endorse another third-party or independent candidate in 2008 rather than offer one of their own.

America First Party -- Founded in 2002 by Buchananites who left the Reform Party but didn't return to the GOP, it is protectionist on trade and conservative on social issues. Its website is rarely updated and its candidates mostly run for local office. The America First Party endorsed Constitution Party nominee Michael Peroutka in 2004. It probably won't do better this time.

Natural Law Party -- Conservatives have often been intrigued by this party's name, thinking it is influenced by Summa Theologica rather than Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Natural Law Party has basically levitated itself out of existence, closing its national headquarters. Its former leader, John Hagelin, has launched a new "U.S. peace government" dedicated to bringing "prevention-oriented, problem-free administration to America." Whatever that means. Might as well vote for Bob Lott.

Ralph Nader -- No, Ralph Nader isn't going to get many conservative votes in 2008. But he is the reason very few conservatives will actually vote for a third party rather than McCain, no matter what they say right now. Third party candidates usually do badly, as Nader did in 1996 and 2004. When they do well, as Nader did in 2000, they help elect the major party candidate their supporters most dislike.

Even real conservatives are constrained by political reality.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.