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Internet, Polarized Politics Create an Opening for a Third Party

The Internet is a leveling force. It diffuses power and empowers new competitors to challenge old arrangements.

Elite newspapers and magazines, for instance, dominate their markets partly because it costs so much to build conventional hard-copy competitors. But the Internet has allowed thousands of new voices to find audiences at little cost for a panoramic assortment of news and opinions in Web logs and online magazines.

Some of the same effect is already evident in politics. Once it took years of heavy spending on direct mail and other recruitment methods to build a national membership organization; MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group, acquired half a million names -- with virtually no investment -- just months after posting an Internet petition opposing President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.

MoveOn, and groups like it on the left and right, chisel at the power of the major political parties by providing an alternative source of campaign funds and volunteers. But otherwise, the two parties that have defined American political life since the 1850s have been largely immune from the centrifugal current of the Internet era.

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Joe Trippi, a principal architect of Howard Dean’s breakthrough Internet strategy in the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, is one of many analysts who believe that may soon change. The Internet, he says, could ignite a serious third-party presidential bid in 2008.

“This is a very disruptive technology,” says Trippi. “And it is going to be very destabilizing to the political establishment of both parties.”

The Internet could allow an independent candidate to more easily identify an audience and financial base, just as it has allowed blogs like the liberal Daily Kos or conservative InstaPundit to find a community of like-minded readers. More precisely, the Internet has allowed readers to find those blogs. And because the audience mostly finds the product, rather than the other way around, the cost of entering the market is radically reduced.

Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively. “Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye,” he says.

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It might not be quite that simple. But the two parties are pursuing strategies that create an opening in the center of the electorate, even as the Internet makes it easier for a new competitor to fill it.

Influenced partly by Ross Perot’s strong showing in the 1992 presidential race, Clinton argued that capturing the middle was the key to electoral success. After an initial lurch left, Clinton doggedly pursued centrist voters by breaking from liberal orthodoxy on welfare, trade, a balanced budget and other issues.

President Bush, by contrast, has been much more willing to risk alienating voters in the center to advance ideas that energize his base. Exit polls showed that Bush lost moderate and independent voters in November’s election. But he won reelection largely by vastly increasing turnout among Republicans and conservatives.

More and more Democrats see their future in Bush’s model, not Clinton’s. Trippi says Clinton’s conviction that elections are won mostly by converting swing voters “is obsolete.” Democrats, Trippi argues, are more likely to win back the White House by increasing turnout among their own supporters with a pointedly partisan message, as Bush did.

It’s not entirely surprising for Trippi, who’s identified with the party’s left, to reach such a conclusion. But even centrist voices like Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, are talking in similar terms. Democratic centrists believe that “if you win independents and moderates, you win the presidential election,” Rosenberg says. But with Bush’s success in 2004, he says, “that has been rejected for all time.”

This argument among Democrats is far from settled. But a tilt in Trippi’s direction is evident in the surprisingly unified Democratic congressional opposition to Bush’s priorities. The result is that both parties are offering policies and messages aimed primarily at their core supporters.

Even strategists such as Trippi who support that approach acknowledge it could have a cost. By ceding the center, it might leave both parties vulnerable to a new force.

“We are now moving toward a very dangerous place for both parties,” he says. “It is becoming much more possible for an independent or third party to emerge because they are leaving so much space in the middle.”

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The hurdles for an independent presidential candidate remain formidable. Even one that attracted a competitive share of the popular vote might have trouble winning many electoral college votes; the strongest candidate could still face the syndrome of finishing second almost everywhere, trailing Republicans in the red states and Democrats in the blue. To have any chance, an independent would need to nearly run the table in battleground states -- like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- that don’t tilt decisively to either side.

Yet if the two parties continue on their current trajectories, the backdrop for the 2008 election could be massive federal budget deficits, gridlock on problems like controlling healthcare costs, furious fights over ethics and poisonous clashes over social issues and Supreme Court appointments. A lackluster economy that’s squeezing the middle-class seems a reasonable possibility too.

In such an environment, imagine the options available to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) if he doesn’t win the 2008 Republican nomination, and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now that he’s dropped his flirtation with running for mayor of New York. If the two Vietnam veterans joined for an all-maverick independent ticket, they might inspire a gold rush of online support -- and make the two national parties the latest example of the Internet’s ability to threaten seemingly impregnable institutions.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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