American political culture, campaign finance and ballot access laws, and the structure of our institutions have served to buttress the two party system. The basic structure of our politics has remained unchanged even as Americans themselves continue to move away from both parties.
Attempts to offer real third party choices reached their zenith with the independent candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992. Since then they've largely fallen flat, most spectacularly with the collapse of Americans Elect earlier this year.
Yet choices remain in the form of the Green Party and Libertarian Party, two hearty entities that continue to go nowhere electorally. Neither has the organization, fundraising, or name recognition for its nominees to do much more than a few percentage points this fall, if that.
Yet they have the potential to be remarkable spoilers to the parties that are closer in ideology to their own.
Imagine Jill Stein of the Green Party capturing a mere 1 percent of the vote in a state like Ohio but throwing the state to Mitt Romney and the Republicans as a result. Likewise, Gary Johnson need only keep a small amount of the popular vote in a state like New Mexico to keep the Obama campaign alive there.
Ralph Nader is blamed for handing Florida to the Republicans in 2000. That charge is overstated but the popular impression hurt Nader and the causes with which he associates. It will not do the Greens or Libertarians any long term favors to be viewed as spoilers.
It is rightfully disconcerting to many that parties which register so poorly in national polls can possibly throw an election. This is, of course, the result of an electoral college system firmly ingrained in American political life, a two party system, winner take all elections, etc. In essence, the main feature of our politics both prevent the widespread adoption of a multi party system but then allow those other parties the potential to play a hugely outsized role in a close election in any given state.
Why go through with a national campaign they are going to lose, that keeps them in fringe territory, and risks throwing the election to the party they most disagree with? I would suggest that this strategy of trying to run a national campaign with its attendant risks helps to keep both the Libertarians and Greens at the fringes of our national debates.
Herewith a solution: don't. Don't run a national campaign and take the Nader risk. Run a selected state campaign in those states where the electoral college math is neither at risk nor in doubt. A state that is so reliably Republican or Democratic that your potential supporters know that supporting you will not risk throwing their state to the party they oppose. And then make that case explicitly.
For the Greens, why not focus on states like Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and the District of Columbia. President Obama won the latter by a margin of 92 percent - 6 percent. His average victory in the first four was 34 points.
For the Libertarians likewise but why not Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Alabama, and the 3rd District of Nebraska. John McCain's average in those five states and one district was just under 30 points.
A 5-6 state strategy would not earn either party the enmity of a good many of their somewhat natural supporters nationwide because they would not play the role of spoiler. It would give both the opportunity to demonstrate real strength in key states upon which they could eventually build real alternatives.
Such a strategy is also more likely to earn both parties some of the policy outcomes they most covet. Given the contours of our current electoral system, neither of the two main parties will pay any attention to the policy proposals of the Greens or Libertarians unless these two can demonstrate real strength somewhere.