Sunday, March 09, 2008

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 Third Party Watch

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