A remarkable yet unreported trend in U.S. politics over the past decade is the balance-of-power held by conservative political parties in federal elections, if we define balance-of-power as a vote total equal to or greater than the difference in votes between the Democratic and Republican candidates in a race.  Some media pundits noted that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader held the balance-of-power in 2000, both in the overall popular vote and in eight states.  Yet Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan also held it in five states (Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin) and came within two tenths of one percent of achieving it in the popular vote.

Since the Newt Gingrich-engineered Republican takeover of the U.S. House in 1994, conservatives have held balance-of-power in at least one race in which a Democrat was victorious in each election cycle.  They stood for office as candidates of such third parties as the American Independent, Constitution, Patriot, Right-to-Life, and New York Conservative parties.  The races in which they held balance-of-power, allowing Democrats to win, were in California (District 36), Oregon (1), and Pennsylvania (15) in 1994; Massachusetts (6) in 1996; Washington (8) in 1998; and Minnesota (6) in 2000.  The Democrats who benefited, arguably, from GOP indifference to paleoconservative issues were Jane Harman of California; Elizabeth Furse of Oregon; Paul McHale of Pennsylvania; John Tierney of Massachusetts; Jay Inslee of Washington; and Bill Luther of Minnesota.  Only Representatives Furse and McHale no longer serve in Congress.  

Conservative balance-of-power has more significance today in a closely divided House (221 Republicans, 212 Democrats, and two independents) than after the 1994 election, when Republicans outnumbered Democrats, 230 to 204 (with one independent).  In addition to the six elections in which Democrats were victorious, Republicans won four other House races in which conservatives held balance-of-power.  A mere shift of five seats would return the House to Democratic control.

The late Murray N. Rothbard termed balance-of-power “the spoiler tradition in American politics.” The trend can be traced to the mid-1960’s when the New York Conservative Party began fielding candidates to oppose moderate Republicans.  Conservative Party cofounder Kieran O’Doherty failed against Republican Congressman John V. Lindsay, a Barry Goldwater critic, in New York’s 17th District in 1964.  But National Review founder William F. Buckley held balance-of-power as the conservative candidate in New York’s 1965 mayoral race against the victorious Lindsay.  The Conservative Party has held balance-of-power more than any other right-wing party, though the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, has achieved it far more frequently (49 times), including in six U.S. Senate and 14 House races won by Democrats.  The Conservative Party’s greatest triumph was the election of Buckley’s brother James to the U.S. Senate in 1970.  New York Republican insiders still termed the Conservatives “spoilers.”  Indeed, Democrats won close House races featuring Conservatives in 1966 (District 27) and 1974 (2).  Since the late 1970’s, the Conservative Party has relied more on New York’s unique cross-endorsement law that allows it, like the Right To Life Party, to endorse federal Republicans.  Still, in New York’s 19th District in 1996, Conservative Joseph J. Dio Guardi held balance-of-power against Republican Sue Kelly and Democrat Richard S. Klein.

Conservative candidates have held balance-of-power far more frequently since the mid-1960’s than left-of-center parties like California’s Peace & Freedom Party or the Naderite Greens.  Yet the Socialist Party, circa 1900-1920, held it more often than any other 20th-century third other party.  Statistician Charles Ferris Gettemy, following the 1904 election, shared his findings with President Theodore Roosevelt, a New York Republican.  Mr. Roosevelt, in a February 1, 1905 reply that might be misinterpreted today, termed the Socialist vote a significant development.  Mr. Roosevelt played the role of spoiler in 1912 when his third-party Bull Moose candidacy cost Republican President William Howard Taft the election.

During the 20th century, Socialist candidates held balance-of-power in 221 elections, including 120 races lost by Democrats.  Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson (1913-19) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) co-opted key planks from the Socialist platform (child-labor laws, income and inheritance taxes, unemployment insurance, Social Security) after the Socialist balance-of-power grew.  Wilson’s papers reveal that he met a Socialist delegation in January 1916.  Likewise, FDR met perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas many times at the White House.  In 1928, FDR had been narrowly elected New York governor (49 percent), defeating Republican Albert Ottinger (48.4 percent).  Socialist Louis Waldman held balance-of-power that year (2.7 percent).  FDR joked afterward that he was “the one-half-of-one-percent governor.”  An astute political entrepreneur, FDR had good reason to co-opt Socialist planks.  As David A. Shannon writes, “The story of the decline of the Socialist Party since 1933 is, for the most part, the story of the political success of the New Deal.”

It is difficult to imagine a Republican president conferring with such Reform Party candidates as populist H. Ross Perot or conservative Pat Buchanan or a Republican House leadership or Senate minority co-opting their issues.  The Reform Party has held balance-of-power in only a half-dozen federal elections, including Kentucky’s 1998 U.S. Senate contest.  Beltway strategists have argued that the Green Party is a greater threat to Democrats then right-wing third parties are to Republicans.  Yet the Greens have not held balance-of-power in a single Senate race.

Beltway strategists are less credible when confronting Libertarian balance-of-power.  Since 1994, the Libertarian Party has held balance-of-power in three Senate elections won by Democrats: California in 1994 (Barbara Feinstein); Nevada in 1998 (Harry Reid); and Washington in 2000 (Maria Cantwell).  Libertarian balance-of-power, especially in the American West, grew in the 1990’s, as the party fielded more candidates.  The same statistical trend is apparent in the history of the Socialist and Progressive parties in the early 20th century.  Republicans, who lost the Senate to Democrats in 2001 and enter the 2002 election with a two-seat (51-49) deficit, should find this trend of some interest and co-opt a plank or two.

That, however, is unlikely to happen.  Consider the treatment of Dr. Ron Paul, a cultural, pro-life conservative and the Libertarian Party’s 1988 presidential candidate.  Dr. Paul, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, was one of only three conservatives serving in the House in 1976 who endorsed Ronald Reagan against moderate Republican incumbent Gerald R.  Ford.  He re-entered the House in 1997, representing Texas’ 14th District as a Republican.  Since his return, Dr. Paul has introduced 124 bills in the House, and not one has passed the Republican-controlled chamber.