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Obama’s campaign operation is an unrecognized, nascent third party in American politics



Pattern detection is everything in our business and there are those 'Ah-ha' moments when a pattern leaps off the page, out of the data. One of those moments crystallized yesterday when reading Wallsten and Hamburger's Vast Obama network becomes a political football. The analogy that leapt to mind was the Baltian, the "Tiny Little Green Man [in] a small control room inside [the android] Rosenberg's head, with gearshifts and viewing screens all around the inside of the skull" in Men in Black.


Obama's campaign operation is an unrecognized, nascent third party in US politics. But while third parties are not unique, this one is because it sits at the core of a recognized party. The question now is whether to graft, or not graft, it into the tissue of the larger organism, and in either case, what will be the health risks to each:

It is the biggest and broadest American political force ever created -- a vast, electronically linked network of activists, neighborhood organizers and volunteers who raised record amounts of money and propelled Barack Obama to the White House... Traditionally, the new president would blend his campaign operation with his party's national committee. [Those] who built the grass-roots organization, worry that linking it too closely to the party could cause the unusual network to unravel -- and squander an extraordinary resource. The Obama machinery relied heavily on idealistic political outsiders committed to breaking free from old ways of doing politics. The worry is that these enthusiastic activists might drift away if they are turned over to the Democratic National Committee, where the party might ask them to support Democrats and target Republicans. Instead, Obama advisors involved in building the force think it should remain an independent entity -- organized around the "Obama brand." The goal, they say, is to integrate Obama's political organization into his new role as president without damaging its zeal for a candidate who promised to change Washington.

Obama is going to need to use this campaign operation to overcome entrenched issues within his own party as well as carry out grass roots implementation. Taking it into the existing Democratic Party will likely strangle it, causing members to spall off. This first wired POTUS has to keep it and if he keeps it he has to grow it, at least until its DNA supplants that of the host.


The US, UK and Canada, for example, employs a ""first-past-the-post" or winner-takes-all simple plurality voting system as opposed to a proportional representation system as used in Israel's Knesset, for example. First-past-the post promotes a two party system:

The American system is commonly called a "two-party system" because there have historically been only two major political parties with candidates competing for offices (especially in federal elections). The first two political parties had their origins in the debate over the ratification of the Constitution--the Federalists and Antifederalists. Today, the Republican and Democratic Parties dominate electoral politics. Almost every federal or state-level elected official in the United States is either a Republican or Democrat...


The American two-party system is the result of the way elections are structured in the United States. Representatives in the Congress and in state legislatures are elected to in single-member districts where the individual with the most votes wins. Because only one party's candidate can win in each district, there is a strong incentive for political competitors to organize themselves into two competing "teams" or parties. By doing so, party members and their candidates maximize their chances of winning elections... Other features of the American system of elections, such as campaign finance rules, the electoral college and rules giving party candidates ballot access further solidify the two-party system in the [US].

In addition to the winner-take-all system (at both the individual election and the Electoral College), third parties face obstacles in: 

  • Organization "around a single personality or a single issue and that can lead to less popularity among voters."
  • Historic American belief that they "are relatively moderate and they can operate comfortably within a system where one party is slightly to the right and the other slightly to the left," i.e., there is no "great need for an alternative."

  • Fear that "a vote for a third party candidate is "wasted" since he or she is unlikely to win."
  • Federal campaign finance laws that influence "who can enter presidential debates" and who will receive campaign funding.
  • Lack of media attention.
  • Significant paperwork "required to become a viable candidate."

While the framers of the Constitution distrusted parties, "once parties did emerge, the system that the framers set up tended to encourage coalitions that fight it out and those coalitions tend to be two in number." Despite the efforts of the major "two party" actors, currently the Democrats and Republicans, to either ignore, disparage or force third parties off the ballot, they have been prolific: 

[An] estimated 1100 of them have come and gone (mostly gone) since the early 19th century. Their traditional function in American politics has been to propose new ideas and to advocate reform. And they have been most successful in this role. Indeed, third parties originally proposed a substantial proportion of the programs associated with modern government, including the progressive income tax, broad voter suffrage, the direct election of US Senators, and many of the nation's social welfare programs. What they are not so good at is winning elections. Just 12 times in our national history have third parties received more than five-percent of the vote. They have never won a national election since the Republicans emerged from third party status in 1860 to elect Lincoln and only rarely are victorious for statewide office.

Richardson had done a remarkable four volume set (citations below) on third parties that conclude with the 1928 presidential election, thus we may yet see more from him on American political alternatives. Suffice it to say that despite their minority votes, the impact of third party candidates cannot be underestimated.


Were it not for two antebellum third parties, the Free Soil and Know-Nothing parties (led respectively by former presidents Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore), it is unlikely that the 1850s anti-slavery Republican Party would have gone on to see Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860. The importance of George Wallace's 13.5% of the popular vote, and 46 electoral votes, in the 1968 presidential election vastly outweighed the raw numbers:

Wallace's third-party presidential campaign nearly threw the 1968 election before the US. Congress. A change in Alabama state law allowed him to run for Governor again, and in 1971 he returned to power... He used the governorship to stay in the public eye, announcing to the national press that he'd always been a moderate and no longer believed in racial segregation. He courted the black vote he had formerly despised, trying to build a new image as a presidential candidate. In 1972 he ran as a Democrat, upsetting the political establishment by winning the most primary votes of any candidate. A Gallup poll of America's most admired men showed Wallace in seventh place -- just ahead of the Pope. All was going well for George Corley Wallace -- until five bullets stopped him and his national aspirations cold.

Seeking attention through assassination, Arthur Bremer found Nixon vastly more satisfying as a target but had to settle for Wallace by virtue of accessibility. Had it not been for this sad, unremarkable person whose bullets did not kill Wallace, instead paralyzing him from the waist down and ending his national political aspirations, Wallace might have gone on to wreak further havoc on the US political scene. Although Wallace recanted his racism late in life, many of the platform issues of Wallace's American Independent Party found their way into a later Republican Southern Strategy.


The Obama network that I describe as a third party is vastly "more expansive and sophisticated" than its predecessors. This may be the first third party that not only generates ideas and issues for the wider electorate but becomes a national party in its own right:

Rooted in the street-level tactics learned by Obama when he worked in the 1980s as a community organizer in several Chicago housing projects, the network grew to include thousands of full-time organizers, many in their 20s and new to politics, who were trained to help create neighborhood teams led by volunteers. In California, Obama's campaign developed an e-mail list with more than 790,000 names. That included 40,000 volunteers "who did real stuff like make over 10 million telephone calls"...


Top organizers such as Ganz, who created the training program called Camp Obama, view the network as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters. Temo Figueroa, another top Obama campaign organizer who headed Latino voter outreach, said he was hearing from community activists across the country who wanted the network to remain intact -- but who were not necessarily party loyalists. "A lot of these warriors on the ground are not Democrats, and that's by choice, [so] creating a different organization might make them more apt to join it."

Say Goodbye to BlackBerry? Yes He Can, Maybe


New York Times

November 15, 2008


Vast Obama network becomes a political football

Some Obama advisors want to blend his campaign operation with the Democratic National Committee. Others worry that such a move could cause the grass-roots organization to unravel.

By Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger

LA Times

November 14, 2008


Volume IV

Others: "Fighting Bob" La Follette and the Progressive Movement: Third-Party Politics in the 1920s

by Darcy G Richardson

iUniverse, 2008


Volume III

Others: Third Parties from Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party to the Decline of Socialism in America

by Darcy G Richardson

iUniverse, 2007


Volume II

Others: Third Parties During the Populist Period

by Darcy G Richardson

iUniverse, 2007


Third Party Follies

Center for Politics & Public Affairs

Franklin & Marshall College

August 10, 2006


Let's (Third) Party


Published: May 3, 2006


Third Parties in the U.S. Political Process

Politics 101Third Parties

PBS, VOTE 2004


Volume I

Others: Third-Party Politics From the Nation's Founding to the Rise and Fall of the Greenback-Labor Party

by Darcy G. Richardson

iUniverse, 2004


Proportional Representation vs. First-Past-The-Post

From Robert Testa, for



The History and Economics of ISP Liability for Third Party Content

Matthew Schruers

Virginia Law Review, Volume 88, No. 1, pp 205-64, March 2002


George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire

Steve Fayer, Joseph Tovares

American Experience



Full cast and crew for Men in Black (1997)

IMDb Pro


Men In Black Script - Dialogue Transcript

Transcript that was painstakingly transcribed using the screenplay and/or viewings of Men In Black


Men In Black

by Ed Solomon



Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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