Third Parties Could Win if They Acted Like Startups

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I think we can all agree that neither of the major political parties is an exact match for our wants and needs. Even still, we know that they will win.

A Republican or a Democrat will be president next year and 20 years from now. They will control the House and the Senate every term for the next several decades. There might be the occasional Independent or Libertarian in the House, but it won’t go much further than that.

Third-party presidential candidates are not taken seriously — and they shouldn’t be.

They are a joke. John McAfee received 14.1% of the delegates for the Libertarian Party nomination in 2016. That is the same McAfee whose name is on the antivirus software. No, not Norton, the other one.

More recently, he is better known for being wanted in Belize in connection to a murder, being arrested in Guatemala, being arrested in the Dominican Republic, and having other legal issues. He sounds like a great option for a presidential candidate, right?

So what can third parties do differently?

They can start thinking like startups.


Niche It up a Notch

Stop trying to win the presidency. It’s like saying you are going to be the next Facebook. It’s a great long-term goal but a terrible short-term tactic. As of when I’m writing this in September, the 2020 presidential candidates have raised 700 million and 1.2 billion dollars. No third party can compete with that.

In the U.S., most elections are winner-take-all. That makes taking a major national election harder than dethroning Google. Imagine if Bing had to get a majority of users over to their side before they could even call themselves a search engine. It would never happen. But that’s what third parties are facing when they try to win the presidency.

What would a startup do? They would find a smaller niche.

As the former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, said: “All politics is local”.

Instead of the presidency, focus on local elections. Find a state or region that is feeling particularly detached from the two major parties and take a few state representative seats. Work your way up from there to the state senate, governorship, and eventually the national House and Senate.

Local politics is not just a way to gain name recognition, either. Local politicians influence national elections. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other tactics make a local-first approach a powerful tool. I’m not proposing third parties use such tactics, but local control can at least help prevent those tactics from being used against them.


Have an “Exit” Strategy

Startups exit by either going public or getting purchased by a larger company. The political equivalent of going public would be to become one of the major parties. I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened in US history.

Instead, third parties should be focused on getting a major party to “buy them”. In politics, this means getting the major party to take on the important parts of the third party’s platform. The Libertarian Party might convince the Republicans to keep the government out of abortion. The Green Party might convince the Democrats to include single-payer healthcare in their platform.

What is the best way to influence those changes? That’s the topic of the next section


Avoid the Winner-Take-All

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The last time a third-party candidate got a significant vote in the presidential election was Ralph Nader in 2000. He won 2.7% of the popular vote, an impressive achievement for a third party. In doing so, however, he arguably lost Al Gore the presidency. Do you think Green Party voters would have preferred Gore or Bush? Foliage jokes aside, I don’t think they would have generally said Bush.

With that in mind, was the Nader campaign a success?

Nader brought the Green Party fame, but the winner-take-all rules likely mean that Nader’s success hurt his voters’ overall goals.

I’ll leave it to the real political analysts to decide if the Democratic Party took on enough Green Party-inspired reforms to make up for that loss, but I would argue that there is a better way to make change happen.

You can’t strike deals in winner-take-all elections. You can’t say “I’ll give your candidate our votes if he agrees to add these 3 things to his platform”. You run a third-party candidate with the hope that you will either win (and you won’t) or cause long-term change to one of the major parties.

Either way, you risk watching your least favorite major party control the country in the short term.

What is the alternative?

It’s called legislation.

A third-party can’t hold 1/100th of the presidency, but they can hold 1/100th of the House or Senate. This is especially doable at the state level. You do still risk the possibility that running a third-party candidate for a House seat could cause your least-preferred major party to win instead. However, that has a significantly decreased potential downside when we are talking about a state House seat compared to the presidency.

Once in office, your candidate can bargain. Elections may be winner-take-all, but legislation isn’t. Dealmaking is a cornerstone of the legislative process.

The more votes your party controls, the more power you have in that process, but even 1 vote can make a difference.

You are not only getting your goals enacted — but you are also building case studies and awareness. Minimum wage hikes, gay marriage, and marijuana legalization all seemed unlikely to go anywhere until people saw how they worked at the local level in just a few jurisdictions. This is how you influence change.


Final Thoughts

I am not a political analyst. I am simply a writer and entrepreneur who is fascinated with politics. It’s noon, and I’ve already listened to two political podcasts this morning. That’s how obsessed I can be with the topic.

This doesn’t make me an expert, but I hope my words can at least get people thinking.

There is at least one third party that I align with better than either of the major parties. I will not vote for them in the coming election, and I will harshly judge those that do.

Unless you truly cannot choose between the two major-party candidates, voting third party in the presidential election is a terrible idea.

I’ve laid out what I think third parties should be doing. They should think locally. They should keep an exit strategy in mind. They should focus on legislation instead of winner-take-all elections.

I will support a third party in those endeavors. I will vote for them at the local level. But please, third parties, stop being Ralph Nader.

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