On Thursday, the first day of in-person early voting, a staffer friend of mine was marking his ballot and wondering aloud about the plethora of socialist options among the nine presidential candidates on the ballot. Socialist, Socialist Workers, and Party of Socialism and Liberation, not to mention the Peace and Freedom Party and the Green Party.
As one considers the minor arcana of dogma that separates these groups from one another, it's easy to recall this scene from Monty Python's Christ parody, "Life of Brian." (NOTE: The video has NSFW language that's amusing but not essential to the point.)
REG: Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People's Front.
PEOPLE'S FRONT OF JUDEA (a grand total of five people including the new member): Yeah... Splitters!
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People's Front.
PFJ: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: And the People's Front of Judea.
PFJ: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters...
LORETTA: The People's Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: WE'RE the People's Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: PEOPLE'S Front!
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He's over there (indicates one man sitting alone).
It's a lot like academic politics or student government. The bitterness of the disputes are inversely proportional to the stakes.
The same dynamic occurs on both ends of the spectrum, as Erich Hoffer noted in his 1951 classic, The True Believer. Hoffer argues that movements are interchangeable, that fanatics will often flip from one movement to another, and movements resemble each other in style and method, even when their stated view are diametrically opposed.
This was evident in the past week as Congressman Ron Paul, erstwhile Republican presidential candidate and the internet phenom of November-December 2007, made his endorsement. Paul remains a sitting member of the House GOP caucus, but has explicitly NOT endorsed John McCain.
Two weeks ago, Paul hosted a press conference of several third party contenders and endorsed a generic, vote for any third party stance. But Paul's presumed favorite, Libertarian nominee Bob Barr skipped the event and held his own event instead. Paul, who was himself the Libertarian candidate in 1988, retaliated by endorsing Chuck Baldwin of the relatively obscure Constitution Party instead.
By third party standards, Libertarian nominee Barr is a relative celebrity, a former member of Congress who had a high media profile back in the Clinton impeachment era. In contrast, Baldwin is a classic third party contender--an leading activist in a tiny movement with no profile among the broader voting public. Third parties are often torn between nominating a longtime loyalist like Baldwin or a celebrity newcomer like Barr.
Electorally, they've done better with the big names, like Jesse Ventura, who went through some party splintering himself. He was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 on Ross Perot's Reform Party ticket, then split after Pat Buchanan's hard-right hostile takeover. Ventura started his own Minnesota Independence Party, which has lived on past his governorship. No, it's not advocating that Minnesota become a country, like the Alaska Independence Party that First Dude Todd Palin affiliated with for a while.
Back over on the left, the strained relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party has led to electoral results less than the sum of the parts. Ralph Nader did much better running with the Greens in 2000 than he did running against the Greens, and their obscure party activist nominee, in 2004. Of course, there were other factors, like the Florida results of 2000. But the resources of the left, and the willingness of the media to cover lesser-known candidates, hurts both Nader and 2008 Green nominee Cynthia McKinney.
The candidates of the libertarian and right spectrum are likely to have a bigger impact than the left, as Barr may be a factor in several close states. Perhaps not so much Iowa, which is looking stronger for Barack Obama by the week. But Barr could be significant in some of the Rocky Mountain states, where Libertarians have run well, and in his native Georgia, which Obama is trying to put into play. (McKinney is also a Georgia native, but her African American base seems solid for Obama.)
But Paul's decision to back the obscure Baldwin, rather than the better-known Barr, is a classic case of the third party movement crumbling late in the game. It probably gives McCain a small boost in a few close states, but one would need special scientific instruments to measure it.