Tensions within the republican party following the 2012 elections suggest to some that the time might be ripe for a new conservative third party, possibly to reflect the tea-party faction and other groups. But the reality is that the two-party system has functioned in such a way that third parties rarely become effective. Historically, almost every credible third-party platform or program has been adopted by one of the two major parties. On President's Day, it might be worthwhile to look at why this is the case.
Most voters usually observe the national parties in the context of elections. But elections are only the tip of the a proverbial iceberg of administrative structures. All states have laws that determine how a political party must function and what it must do to have the names of its candidates on the ballot. While the laws vary in detail, they usually require any political party to hold local caucuses, in each county for statewide recognition. States may also require a certain minimum number of town caucuses. With 3033 counties in the USA, that can be a daunting task for any new organization. But democrats and republicans already have their local structures in place.
Each local caucus must also elect a chairman to handle the administrative duties of the parties. They are usually routine, (filing reports, submitting names and addresses, etc). In Texas, the lowest level of organization is the precinct, so in theory, each precinct in each county elects a precinct chair person. Harris County has 1064 precincts, and not every republican and democratic precinct has a chair. Any third party will need to recruit a small army of dedicated volunteers to take on that role. Precinct chairs are not paid. However, they become members of the party executive committee, and they are the presumptive Presiding Judge or Alternate Judge overseeing each election in their precinct.
Here is where the two-party system comes in. Under Texas law, the precinct chair of the party of the gubernatorial candidate who carries a precinct is entitled to become the presiding judge at each election during that term. The precinct chair of the party with the second-highest number of votes becomes the alternate judge. The presiding judges then appoint the ballot clerks.
At the county level, a party victory puts the control of each election into the hands of an elected official of that party. For practical purposes, the system works to assure that either a republican or a democrat will be in control of the election, but there will be substantial involvement by the losing party. Third parties rarely appear on the “radar screen” in this process.
The county Executive Committees then choose the State Committee members, and the state Committees elect the National Committees. So the grassroots level what gives legitimacy for the national leadership.
Similarly, the process for getting a candidate's name on the ballot requires a certain minimum number of signatures of registered voters. Clearly, having a local organization of duly elected, credential party activates favors the existing parties. Again, most candidates will be republicans or democrats.
The result of the structure is that anyone who wishes to suggest a change, a new program, policy or other measure has the choice of working with an already-established party, or trying to create an intricate organizational apparatus capable of taking part in the dialog that frames the electoral process. It is almost always easier to become involved in the local organization of an established party, and attempt to persuade like-minded members to advance an idea to the next level, than to start from scratch.
A new party would have to harness frustration and anger, and channel it in the form of a stable long-term structure with a mission to educate and recruit voters. Again, it is almost always more likely that anything practical that is proposed by innovative, energetic voters will find its way to a floor debate in an existing county executive committee, then to an overture in one or more state committees.
So third parties have always been legal, but rarely practical. We will have to see how the dissidents fare over the next two years.