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deni's avatar

How did we get to the point where we have only a whopping two choices for President?

Asked by deni (22198 points ) October 11th, 2012

Title says it all. I just don’t get it. Yes, I understand there are others running, but they don’t even get to partake in the debates, let alone have any shot at winning the election. And when you think about it, isn’t it really outrageous that we have TWO choices? We have more choices than that for literally any other decision we ever have to make. Why, such an important one, we are given only two? Will there ever be a third party that has a chance? A fourth party? A fifth party? Might help with people voting for someone they actually support rather than the “less of two evils” which seems to be the case for a lot of people.

I hate politics. This isn’t meant to be an argument…I know fairly little about it and mostly that is because I choose to. I find it upsetting, and am asking this question innocently. I really do want to know how it got to this point. 2 options. Seems so ridiculous.

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25 Answers

woodcutter's avatar

It’s where the money is and its influence and the two parties are crazy protective of their places. Neither one of the current parties wants to see a third party candidate…ever. My reply is very basic others can maybe fill in the details.

wundayatta's avatar

Think about it. Let’s start from scratch. How would you mount a campaign for President? The first thing you’d need is resources. How do you get resources? Well, perhaps people will help. How do you get people to help? You need an organization. So you build an organization. In America, we call that a party.

So everyone starts a party. There are hundreds, all fighting for one position. Is there a way to maximize your chances of getting that position? What if you ally your party with another one that shares a lot of your opinions and ideas?

Parties that merge become bigger and represent more people, and have a better chance of winning the position. But then, the other parties start doing the merging so as to maximize their chances.

What is the logical end of this? Everyone merges and merges until, in the end, there are how many parties?

You guessed it! Two.

Political theorists say that a mature democracy will end up with two parties. You can look at Canada and Britain and say they have three, but the theoreticians would say they are younger democracies than the US. They also might point to different rules. Some nations have proportional representation, not winner takes all. So in those nations, if some party gets ten percent of the votes, they get ten percent of the MPs.

But in the US, the winner takes all, and in winner take all systems, the best way to assure that you can win power is if you ally with 50% of the parties plus one. Since being in power is so important, most people are willing to make alliances instead of trying to go it alone. And since most voters want to vote for a winner, they will only vote for a party or a candidate who has a chance of winning.

There are only a few people who are willing to vote for a losing candidate on principle. And in some elections, those voters can have a huge, often disastrous effect. Like the time the Nader candidacy in Florida threw the election to Bush. Nader, not on purpose, brought us two disastrous wars. Oddly, he says that even if he had known, he still would have run.

Anyway, we end up with a two party system because we have a winner take all system. The two parties jostle to hold onto their fanatics while being just far enough into the center to get 50% plus one of the vote. That’s how you win elections. That’s why candidates go wing nut in the primary, when they have to appeal to the fans, and then make a turn to the center during the general election and they have to get 50% plus one of everyone.

We will never have multiple parties because if you aren’t the main party or one of two, you don’t have a chance. People value having power over taking a stand, for the most part. So voters will always only have a choice of two.

SavoirFaire's avatar

As a bit of a follow-up on @wundayatta‘s point, you might be interested in reading about Duverger’s law. The idea is that plurality voting systems tend to coincide with two-party systems (though which causes the other is a matter for some debate). If we were able to change the way we ran elections, perhaps switching to some form of preferential voting, we might be able to break the hold that the two mainstream parties have on politics right now. We’d need Congress to vote such a change into the law, however, so we probably won’t have much luck making progress on that front unless we can find ways to convince individual representatives that it is in their own interest somehow to adopt such a system.

ETpro's avatar

@deni What a clearly excellent question. When I jumped to it, there were just 2 answers but it already had 9 great question awards.

All I can add to the excellent answers above is that, like Topsy, it just grow’d. President George Washington warned of the dangers of political parties, but as @wundayatta pointed out, they are the necessary outgrowth of a robust democracy. And we’ve had lots of them over the years. Rather than list them all, read up on them here. Suffice to say that what we have today is called the 5th Party System, meaning there were 4 other party systems before it. It arose out of support and opposition to FDR’s new deal beginning in 1933.

Take a look at this article and it’s fantastic graphic to see just how convoluted this development has been.

rojo's avatar

Non-Sequitur 11 Oct 2012 This was in the paper this morning. Pretty timely

rojo's avatar

The only way you could get Congress to even consider changing the voting procedure would be through a group like the tea-party that came in for that express reason. Even then I doubt they would have the votes to swing it.
Good article @ETpro

rojo's avatar

Or graphic rather. Was it Washington of Jefferson who wanted no parties?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@rojo Several of the Founders were opposed to parties, though that didn’t stop them from forming the alliances that would become parties. John Adams put it this way:

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, it to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

tedd's avatar

Actually for the first dozen or so elections in our nations history, there were usually 3 or more candidates. There were no VP candidates, the person who came in 2nd was the VP. At the end of the day though it usually ended up being 2 primary candidates who best represented the two major columns of the populace, and several times it actually ended up being a complete mess. The Whigs actually beat Andrew Jackson’s first candidacy by running several candidates around the country. Though Jackson won the majority, he lost the election and the Whigs were allowed to essentially “assign” a president.

rojo's avatar

@SavoirFaire thanks, and I liked and agreed with the quote.
@tedd there is an interesting question for another topic. How/when did we change to having the P & VP from the same ticket? When parties took control? Ah well, later.

LostInParadise's avatar

It would be possible to implement on a state level one of the preferential voting systems that @SavoirFaire mentioned without an act of Congress. Each state is responsible for how it apportions its electoral votes. I don’t think any states have adapted other voting methods, but I know it has been voted on in a few of them.

Parliamentary systems frequently have multi-party representation. I don’t know if there has ever been a case where a minority party was ever able to move to majority status, but they frequently play a key role in determining which side is able to form a government.

Australia has a parliamentary form of government and it uses instant runoff for its national elections.

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tedd's avatar

@rojo 1804 was the first election where they changed it. Until that point the electors for each state voted for two candidates, and whoever came in 2nd in total voting was the VP. In 1796 that resulted in the Federalist candidate (John Adams) winning the election, but rather than the Federalist VP candidate (Thomas Pickney).. Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican candidate) won the second largest sum of votes, and became VP.

In 1800 it was actually more problematic though. In that election the Democratic-Republicans had a clear majority of electors, so they planned to have everyone vote for Jefferson as president and Aaron Burr as VP. But one elector was to abstain his vote for VP, hence giving Jefferson a one vote victory over Burr, and giving Burr the VP over Federalist incumbent John Adams. Unfortunately they screwed up the plan, and everyone cast both of their ballots, resulting in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. That meant that the outgoing House of Representatives (which was Federalist controlled) would have to decide which of the two men would be president. The Federalists wanted to elect Burr, since he was the tickets VP candidate, as one last “F*ck You” on their way out the door, but a campaign partially led by Burr’s long time rival Alexander Hamilton, led to Jefferson being elected president.

That crisis and bungled election led to the now Democratic-Republican dominated Congress and Presidency enacting the 12th amendment.. which among other things had separate elections for the president and the VP, rather than combining them and naming the top two vote getters. Technically it is still this way today, and you should legally be allowed to vote for the President on one ticket, and the VP of another if you so choose. But by the Civil War they simply stacked them together and you vote for the pair (though no legislation ever made this official).

YARNLADY's avatar

Actually there are 10 candidates for president of the United States.

Paradox25's avatar

In the end it comes down to the people who vote. Many voters are either just too lazy or too stupid to do the extra work to research about other candidates, and to see what they’re about. Also there are many voters who tend to vote for what they see as the lesser of the two evils vs voting for the better candidate in their minds, since voters don’t want to ‘throw their vote away’. People whine about the ‘lack’ of choices, but in the end either cry conspiracy theory or vote the way that everyone else does.

I guess I’ve been guilty of doing this myself on occasion, but usually I’ll vote third party vs voting for the lesser of the two evils. Can you imagine if everybody who supported the candidate they really liked actually decided to vote for them instead of voting for the typical two choices; some third party candidates would probably win! I’m not the biggest fan of Obama, but I like him much better than Romney, and I find Ryan to be an absolute scumbag (mild words here), so I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. Personally I like Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate the best, though I don’t classify myself as a libertarian in theory.

deni's avatar

@Paradox25 That’s not necessarily true. They are not presented in the same way the two “major” candidates are. There is a third party candidate that I want to vote for, unfortunately I know that doing so will be essentially throwing my vote away. I’m still gonna do it but part of me also says “One vote for a third party candidate is one less vote for the lesser of the two evils that actually have a chance…”

How is everyone supposed to give these other guys a chance though if they aren’t even included in the debate? And what is the reason for that? Because they don’t have enough money to pay the media? I don’t get itttttt! And I think at this point it is a vicious cycle that will be really hard to break.

But yes I also agree with you, most people settle for having those two options. THey don’t look any further.

Paradox25's avatar

@deni Unfortunately paradise is never handed to us, so we have to be willing to work for it. Many people aren’t willing to do the extra work, so despite your points being true, it is what it is. As long as we can research about the various candidates out there, and have the power to still vote for them, we do have the ability to elect the candidates of our choices.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I would love to see a third, fourth, or even a fifth party emerge. I do feel like I am choosing from Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The big problem that I see is that everyone is afraid to vote for a candidate other than a Democrat or Republican because it splits the vote. In other words, if you were conservative and wanted a conservative to win, you wouldn’t vote for a third person who was also conservative, even if you liked him better, because that would split the conservative votes between two candidates, and the liberal candidate would win the election.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@YARNLADY I am usually the first to complain about people ignoring third-party candidates, but @deni covered it well. From the OP: “Yes, I understand there are others running, but they don’t even get to partake in the debates, let alone have any shot at winning the election.” What we’re being asked, then, is how the US got to the point of alternative candidates being so thoroughly marginalized.

deni's avatar

@SavoirFaire Is it a money thing, do you think?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@deni More of a power and job security thing. Being President of the United States or a member of Congress has far greater benefits for political types than the money. Most politicians have made their money before taking office and make even more after leaving it, but I doubt they ever feel quite as powerful as they do when they are directly in charge of running the country. The Republicans and the Democrats are playing a very long game. Neither actually wants the other gone. They keep one another in business. It’s no wonder, then, that a genuine rival in the form of a third-party candidate would be so frightening to them. Nothing is so threatening to our political soap opera than a person who refuses to stick to the script.

LostInParadise's avatar

Preferential voting would remove the problem of feeling that you are throwing your vote away. This is most apparent in instant runoff. The most interesting scenario is when there is one serious third party contender, as we have had in elections that I have participated in with Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and John Anderson. Under instant runoff, if you had made one of these your first choice and one of the two major party candidates your second choice, the worst that would have happened was that your first choice would have been behind the other two candidates but neither of the major party candidates got a majority. In that case, people’s second, third or further down would be counted until someone got a majority.

I doubt that a third party would win a presidential election the first time, but preferential voting would allow a third party to build momentum. A 15% share of the vote would not be unreasonable, and that is the threshold for participating in debates.

Having said this, I should point out that instant runoff has its critics There may be better choices than instant runoff voting. There is a mathematical result that shows that any way of choosing the winner of an election with more than 2 candidates is imperfect. Still here must be some method that is better overall than the current system.

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SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise There are many systems of preferential voting. Wikipedia has a fairly good article on it here. When considering the imperfections of alternative systems, it seems to me worthwhile to be clear on both the likelihood of failure and the failures that are already possible under the current system. Every system has trade-offs, but few have as many problems as plurality voting.

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