Third parties: Late, for a very important date

This year, the Constitution Party’s national convention is scheduled for April. The Libertarian Party will convene to nominate its 2008 presidential slate in late May. The Green Party won’t choose its ticket until July.

This may not seem unusual (the Republicans and Democrats usually hold their conventions in August or even early September), but third parties and “major parties” face very different sets of obstacles in publicizing their presidential prospects.

The Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have been the subject of fawning media coverage for close to two years now. They’ve been debating each other on prime time television for nearly a year. They’ve battled each other in highly-publicized primaries and caucuses all over the nation. Everyone knows who John McCain is. Everyone’s heard of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

I’m not one for silver bullets—no one thing will put third party candidates into contention for the presidency—but some changes just make sense. One of those changes is nominating earlier. My recollection is that the Libertarian Party used to nominate its presidential candidates the year before the election. Andre Marrou was nominated for president in 1991. Ron Paul was nominated in 1987. And so on, and so forth. It was only in 1996 that the LP moved its nominating convention into the year of the election itself.

Late nominating conventions handicap third parties. We can’t expect the kind of pre-nomination media coverage that “major party” candidates get. The sooner a party positions itself behind a nominee, the sooner that nominee has access to the party’s full pool of presidential contributors and can get to work reaching beyond the party to the American public. It’s all well and good to hope that a pre-nomination third party candidate will “break out” and catch the mainstream media eye … but it seldom works out that way.

This year, the LP and Constitution party nominations are very much up in the air only a few weeks ahead of their national conventions, with credible rumors of two possible late entrants (Bob Barr and Mary Ruwart) in the LP race, and Alan Keyes mulling a Constitution Party bid. And while Cynthia McKinney is probably a lock for the Green nomination, she’s not yet free to take that for granted and start running her general election campaign with the assurance that her new party will remain behind her.

These parties’ nominees will only have a few short months to go from zero to general election speed. They’ll be facing “major party” opponents who’ve enjoyed 24/7 media coverage for the past year, coverage which will only intensify as November draweth nigh—and even post-nomination third party candidates are doing well to wrangle 1% of the mainstream media’s attention during the general election cycle.

It’s time for third parties to re-think their nomination convention timing. While an election-year convention has some media potential, that potential probably doesn’t outweigh the benefits of giving our nominees a full year in the general election campaign saddle.

Cross-posted at [email protected]

27 Responses to “Third parties: Late, for a very important date”

  1. Peter M. Says:

    I’ve always thought this was rather strange. It seems to me that, especially since the media circus surrounding the major parties started in 2006, third parties would have the sense to try and nominate early in order to get that much more news coverage. But it seems like the only parties that did nominate in 2007 were the Prohibition Party and the Socialist Party USA, with the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the Socialist Workers Party announcing their candidates in January 2008.

  2. G.E. Says:

    I agree with Knapp.

  3. Jeff Wartman Says:

    I couldn’t agree more

  4. Chuck Moulton Says:

    I completely agree.

    At the very latest the presidential nominating convention should be held on President’s Day weekend. Otherwise, the summer before is appropriate. However, I do not favor July 4th weekend for any LP national convention because our candidates should be out campaigning then.

    The way to ensure this happens is for convention delegates to pass a resolution this convention saying they strongly favor an early (or year before) nominating convention. That sends a strong message to the LNC that an early date should be selected. Another possible mechanism is to change the Bylaws, but I don’t think this year’s Bylaws Committee will address the subject.

  5. Laura Says:

    Thought and wrote the same myself. Uh-duh.

  6. Ghoststrider Says:

    Totally agreed. Maybe even two years ahead of time. Utilize Facebook and MySpace to get the message out. Make it seem cool to vote third party.

  7. Fred C. Says:

    Tough call. Keeping the convention in the election year keeps the nominating process in sync with the election itself.

    A good example is how the Barr buzz spiked after the GOP was left with McCain as their presumptive. Before a single major-party primary was held, there was no way to see if that kind of opportunity existed or how to take advantage of it.

    Also, the recession is a reality today and will probably be more so by this Memorial Day, but last summer was only apparent in the eyes of those few with good foresight. What if we picked a candidate that wasn’t especially suited to economic issues? What if we nominated someone whose main focus was the Iraq war, and then the dems collectively grew a pair and set a time table that would have it over within 08? We’d be hooped. A year or more is a long time for a candidate of any party to ride through.

  8. Ben Says:

    I agree with Tom. I always thought that the September 1999 USTP/CP convention in St. Louis was the best thought-out idea the national CP ever had. The biggest problem was that they tried to retread their old candidate and blew any traction they would have otherwise had. I have always thought the US Taxpayer’s Party was a winning name, and a mistake to change the name. Changing the name from USTP to Constitution Party was eqivalent to pouring grease on an upward slope. They lost all good will gained in 1992 and ‘96 because too many people were unaware of the party name change. A different candidate with the US Taxpayer’s Party name would have shown growth for the now CP in 2000 due to extended coverage of the campaign and more time to “motivate the troops.”

  9. Dave Williams Says:

    Affirmative Ghostsrider! The internet is a powerful tool.

  10. Dave Williams Says:

    Fred, great point.

  11. mfucci Says:

    I agree with Fred C. The scenarios he outlined as well as many others that could arise outweigh the benefits of early nominations.

  12. Phil Sawyer Says:

    What is more important than the timing of the conventions is the need to nominate presidential and vice-presidential candidates with more name recognition. The Libertarian Party did not offer its presidential nomination to Eugene J. McCarthy in 1980 and the Party has not amounted to much ever since.

    The Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party need to wake up and smell the coffee - if they ever desire to amount to anything. What both of these parties should do this year is to nominate Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez for president and vice president!

  13. Thomas L. Knapp Says:

    Presumably third party candidates are at least as capable of adapting to emerging situations as “major party” candidates are—if not, then third parties need to choose better candidates. Those emerging situations aren’t very predictable, so I don’t see any big advantage in nominating later. We could nominate a candidate one day, and the situation could change the next.

    What is predictable is that if a third party waits until late spring or early summer of the election year to nominate its candidate, that candidate will face even more handicaps in raising funds and getting into the fight than if he or she had been nominated in late summer or early fall of the previous year.

    One of the biggest deficits third party candidates face is in getting in the public eye at all. It would be nice for a third party to have its nominee named, its fundraising machinery in motion, and be ready to run commercials for a known nominee during the “major party” debates, caucus and primary coverage, etc.

    Let me repeat myself—I’m not saying early nomination is a silver bullet. It won’t magically make a third party into a “major party.” But I think it makes sense.

  14. Andy Says:

    Another good reason to have an earlier convention is that several states require names of candidates to be listed on ballot access petition forms. Since the ballot access petitioning starts well before a late convention a lot of these states have to use “stand in/proxy” candidates on their petition forms since the real candidates have not be chosen yet when the petition signature gathering process starts. This creates the akward situation of having the name of some person on the petition form who is not even the real candidate which sometimes creates confusion among the general public.

  15. Fred C. Says:

    “Presumably third party candidates are at least as capable of adapting to emerging situations as “major party” candidates are—if not, then third parties need to choose better candidates.”

    That’s part of the problem - we aren’t, and the duopoly parties (or even the other third parties) would be reaping an advantage by having more of those situations behind them and less ahead of them. Even in the general election, a candidate just needs to blow it once to seal his defeat. An early nomination provides less opportunity to see how a candidate can handle those situations, and gives a lot more chances for him to screw one up.

    But those upsides you mention do seem pretty appetizing. Maybe i’m just being a contrarian pain the ass…

  16. Gene Trosper Says:

    I personally preferred when the LP held it’s nominating convention one year prior to the general election. It made sense then and it makes sense now. Hopefully, it becomes an issue at the upcoming LP NatCon.

  17. Trent Hill Says:

    For the record, Alan Keyes isnt the only candidate who is rumored to be jumping in late. You can add Judge Roy Moore to the list—and another,whom ill report on later.

  18. David F. Nolan Says:

    There are obviously arguments both for and against the “early convention” strategy, but the results from the last six Presidential elections give no credence to the idea that Libertarian candidates do better if they’re nominated the year before the election. Vote totals in those six elections were: Bergland (1984) 227,000; Paul (1988) 432,000; Marrou (1992) 292,000; Browne (1996) 485,000; Browne (2000) 386,000; Badnarik (2004) 397,000.

    The first three, nominated the year before the election, averaged about 317,000 votes. The latter three, nominated the year the election was held, averaged almost 423,000 votes - 1/3 higher. I would not argue that ANY solid conclusion can be reached based on such skimpy statistics. Clearly other factor played a far greater role in shaping the outcome in each of the six contests. But to the extent that one can hazard a guess, it would appear that holding the nominating convention in the year of the election offers a slight edge.

  19. Richard Winger Says:

    Parties that hold early presidential nominating conventions lose the chance to get primary season matching funds. I realize the Libertarian and Constitution Parties’ candidates aren’t interested in filing for primary season matching funds anyway. But that’s certainly not true of the other minor parties.

    Parties that have received primary season matching funds (and which then legally used the money to pay for general election petitioning) have been the Citizens Party in 1984 (Sonia Johnson); the New Alliance Party in 1988 and 1992 (Lenora Fulani); the Natural Law Party in 1992, 1996 and 2000 (John Hagelin); the Green Party in 2000 (Ralph Nader); the Reform Party in 2004 (Ralph Nader).

    Primary season money shuts off as soon as the party makes its nomination. Since the money can never be paid in the odd year before, a party that nominates in the odd year before the election has just totally shut off the opportunity.

  20. Hugh Jass Says:

    “The Libertarian Party did not offer its presidential nomination to Eugene J. McCarthy in 1980 and the Party has not amounted to much ever since.”

    1. Gene McCarthy did not seek the Libertarian nomination.
    2. While he had libertarian sympathies, he was not a Libertarian.

  21. Free Al Says:

    I’m not usually one for blogs, so don’t expect to see me often, but I thought I’d jump in and offer a sort of compromise that I haven’t seen yet. Why not nominate a canidate early in the election year, say January-March, 08 for the current cycle. While things can change in the course of a year, it puts third parties closer to the election cycle, while still giving us an early start on the campaign trail. Also, this allows for some Primary matching funds to be filed for. Holding in the summer before seems a bit foolish, while holding in the summer of seems like unneccesary delaying. Nominating a canidate in the spring of the Election years seems just right.

  22. Roscoe Says:

    Mr. Nolan’s vote totals show a 1/3 increase for late nominated candidates.
    However, by 1992 the LP had only 10,000 members. By 1996 and thereafter, it claimed 20-30,000. So if one factors in the size of the LP relative to the nomination times, the LP did better (votes per capita membership) when party members had more time to campaign for their candidate. A nice compromise might be a nominating convention around MLK Day in January or President’s Day in February - at a warm(er) location such as Orlando or San Diego or Phoenix.

  23. Sherlock Holmes Says:

    Labord day, pre-election year.

  24. Marc Montoni Says:

    Seems like there is a shortage of long-term memory somewhere.

    At least in the case of the Libertarian Party, the 1993 decision to move the next national convention to the year of the election (1996) was primarily motivated by the desire to give us legal standing to sue for ballot-access relief in states where the early petitioning deadlines plus no substitution made for a discriminatory situation.

    Ultimately, what third parties should really be aiming for is “schedule parity” with the Democrats & Republicans—e.g., our deadline for certifying our nominated candidates for president should be the same as the latest of the duopoly’s conventions.

    Fairness would dictate that if the Dems and Reps can certify only a couple of months before the general election, we should be able to do the same.

    We got the law changed in Virginia partially due to the lawsuit threat from our “year-of-election” convention in 1996.

    There may still be a couple of states where continued action of that sort is needed; I don’t know.

    I would think that if the LP or some other major third party doesn’t maintain an election-year nominating convention, the thieves if the duopoly parties would assume they could roll back the improvements made in ballot access law since 1996.

    I could live with an earlier selection date unless there are any compelling lawsuits over early deadlines or candidate substitutions that still need to be fought; however, I would prefer that it be earlier in the Pres year rather than the summer of the previous year.

    All of that said, however, I really wish candidates for our nomination would do what Harry Browne did in 1996 and 2000: use the pre-nomination period to raise new money, find new contributors, and get them into the LP. This pre-convention recruiting opportunity should be used as the indicator of which candidate will do the most for the LP.

    Admittedly, there is little incentive for them to do so as long as the current one-sided climate is in place.

  25. Steve Dasbach Says:

    I have to disagree. Right about now is the right time to nominate. If third parties nominate prior to or during the heat of the D & R nomination races, they will be completely ignored. Plus, nominating that early eliminates any speculation that a “Ron Paul” might jump ship and seek a third party nomination.

    Nominating in late March or early April would put the post-nomination media burst right at the when the major party nominees have (usually) been determined and the media are looking for new story angles.

    Finally, once the nomination occurs, contributions count against general election limits instead of primary ones. The earlier you nominate, the more months those post-nomination dollars have to last.

    We should move the LP nomination up, but only by a couple of months.

  26. Thomas L. Knapp Says:


    Dammit, you had to go and bring Browne into this. You write:

    “I really wish candidates for our nomination would do what Harry Browne did in 1996 and 2000: use the pre-nomination period to raise new money, find new contributors, and get them into the LP.”

    Browne is the perfect example of a candidate having a long post-nomination period to campaign in, since he was de facto nominated in 1995 and 1998, both times by seizing control of the party apparatus—illicitly in 1995 under the aegis of a corrupt national director who has since publicly confessed to stealing the 1996 nomination for Browne, and semi-licitly in 1998 with the help of a duly elected national chair who told everyone to sit down and shut up while he used LPHQ as a Browne 2000 campaign facility.

  27. Marc Montoni Says:

    Some folks just can’t get beyond knee-jerk.

    I see the nomination process as analogous to a music website that allows the sampling of a couple of minutes of a larger song before one buys. With our campaigns, the pre-nomination period, in theory, allows LP members to see which candidates are the best at:

    1. Recruiting new members;
    2. Re-engaging former members;
    3. Raising money;
    4. Earning media; and
    5. Producing campaign materials and ads.

    In 1988, we had a choice between two candidates—Russell Means and Ron Paul (as well as a couple of others I don’t remember). Both were very good at getting people involved in the Party (the also-rans were not) and both were also pretty good at raising money; although neither Paul nor Means released their supporter database to the LP so they could be contacted for the next campaign (the “Paul Surge” of members was primarily people who called the LP directly because they’d been inspired to do so by the Paul campaign—I know because I fielded more than a few of those calls even a year later). Unfortunately those people were but a small subset of the number of people who were on the Paul campaign database. From December 1987 to December 1988, the LP only increased it membership rolls from 5500 to 6300 (about 14%).

    1992, Andre Marrou demonstrated very clearly that a pre-nomination candidate could recruit a lot of new members. Both in advance of the nomination, and after it, Marrou made absolutely sure that LPHQ was promptly given all new names generated by his campaign, so the Party could ask them to join/support the LP. I know because one of my jobs as an LPHQ staffer was to get the information packets out to the prospects. In fact the 1992 election-year spike brought the LP to its then-highest membership level ever, from about 9,000 to about 12,000 members (25% increase).

    The Browne campaign’s 1996 and 2000 sharing of supporter contact information was based on the Marrou model. The direct result was thousands of people were brought into the LP by Browne in 1995 and 1996.

    Opponents running against Marrou and Browne did nothing similar during the pre-nomination window. Dick Boddie, for instance, didn’t share any of his supporter data with the LP. Neither did Tompkins, Gorman, Hornberger, or anyone else.

    In any case, nothing will dissuade me that the pre-nomination period should be seen as anything other than the “candidate test drive”. The nomination at the convention should be seen as the “buy”. The candidate who does the best job of recruiting new friends into the Party and the movement should be given the nod by delegates. The ones who refuse to do that should be ignored.

    Interesting side thought: Things that happened twelve years ago still seem to cause fits:
    From: [email protected]
    To: [email protected]
    Date: Wed, 28 Feb 1996 06:47:49 -0500

    “the national office is primarily directing reporters to the Browne campaign and positioning Browne as the ‘front runner.’”———————————————————————-

    ... yet the same thing is happening right now:

    ... with a candidate featured prominently on the site with a label of “1st place”. Ingenious—putting the rankings on “autopilot”. Leaves no one responsible for perceived bias. Had this been done in Browne’s time, I have little doubt that the cries of indignation would be simply deafening.

    Don’t get me wrong—I think Liberty Decides is wonderful idea; however, I don’t approve of its sole metric. Measuring how many new Sustaining or above members a candidate has recruited would be a far more important metric to say which candidates would be more or less beneficial for the Party.

Leave a Reply