Democrats Could Become a 'Minor Party'- At Great Cost


A specter is haunting the Democratic Party. The party may become, formally and legally, "a minor party" in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and according to the U.S. Code and the Internal Revenue Code.

Recently Richard Nixon said of the 1992 presidential race that he expects Ross Perot "will have the strongest support of any third party candidate this century except for Teddy Roosevelt."

San Diego newspaper editor Gerald Warren, a former aide to President Nixon said, "Perot will do better than Teddy Roosevelt did by a long shot."

Ex-President Roosevelt, a Republican, ran as a new party candidate in 1912 against incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt got 27 percent of the vote. He came in second, and -- and this is what is significant about 1912 in 1992 -- he cut major party nominee Taft down to 23 percent.

Other astute observers of presidential elections today believe Mr. Perot is going to run strong enough to reduce at least one of the major parties to such a low state. House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich warned the White House recently that a Perot candidacy could win as much as 45 percent of the vote. He forecast President Bush at 30 percent and Bill Clinton at 25.

Newsweek's latest poll also has Bill Clinton at 25 percent -- to 35 for Ross Perot and 33 for George Bush. Time's poll: Perot 37, Bush and Clinton 24. The Washington Post-ABC poll: Perot 38, Bush 30, Clinton 26.

So the polls and some experts indicate that major party candidate nominee Clinton could, indeed, drop down to around 25 percent of the vote. History confirms that though it is rare it can happen. Not only did President Taft drop to 23 percent in 1912, but in 1924 the Democratic candidate for However, one thing would be different president got only 28.8 percent of the vote in a race in which a third party candidate was relatively weak (he got 17 percent of the vote).

This time. Parties are legally differentiated as "major," "minor," and "new" in the law today. The differentiation is needed because federal Treasury funds are used to support presidential candidates. How much money one gets is determined by one's party's designation.

The law defines a minor party as one getting at least 5 percent of the total popular vote for president but less than 25 percent. A major party is one that gets 25 percent or more. I believe that if the November outcome is something like today's polls and other evidence suggest it could be -- with Bill Clinton getting only 24 percent of the vote or less -- then the FEC would have to vote to designate the Democrats as a minor party. Then the FEC would have to vote to do the following:

1. Reduce the Democrats' federal subsidy for its 1996 national convention so that instead of being the same amount as the Republicans get, the party would get only about two-thirds as much.

2. Reduce the 1996 Democratic nominee's federal general election campaign subsidy to about two-thirds of the Republican nominee's.

3. Reduce the limit on private funds that the Democratic Party and its candidate could spend in a coordinated fashion (so-called "hard money") to about two-thirds of the amount the Republican nominee and party could spend.

In addition, it would probably greatly reduce the amount of private money the Democratic Party could raise for party building and voter turnout (so called "soft money"). I'll come back to this point.

Now, I don't know that all the above would happen. Campaign finance law is difficult to read in a situation like this. I've sought help this week from academics specializing in campaign finance, Washington attorneys practicing election law and government officials who oversee the handling of federal campaign funds. They all were very cautious and tentative in their answers -- and requested anonymity. No one wants to be seen as possibly suggesting Bill Clinton will do so poorly. No one wants to be accused of making self-fulfilling prophesies.

But it seems to me that the way the law works is this: A "minor party" is entitled to federal funds in the next presidential election based on the ratio of its presidential candidate's votes to the average of the votes of the "major" parties in the previous election.

If the Democrats get 24 percent of the vote this year, in the next election the party will be legally a "minor" party, the Republican and the Perot parties (if Mr. Perot is, in fact, a party, which is also not easy to determine) will be legally "major" if they both get 25 percent or more. Their average vote will be about 38 percent (100 minus 24 divided by 2). So in 1996, the Democrats would get 24/38ths -- about two-thirds -- as much as the Republicans and the Perots (if the Perots forsake private expenditures in the 1996 election).

We are not talking peanuts here. This year the two major parties and their nominees will each get $11.1 million for their conventions and $55.2 million for the nominee's campaign.

Had the Democratic nominee fallen to minor party status in the eyes of the law in 1988, this year the party would get only about only about $7 million for its convention and $34 million for its candidate. That would be a handicap of about $25 million.

The reason I said that the Democrats would have difficulties raising "soft money" for party building has nothing to do with the law's restrictions. The law does not cover soft money.

But I believe the party would be so demoralized and suffer such a public relations disaster by being legally designated a minor party that private fund raising would be severely reduced.

The national Democratic Party is having trouble raising money now. The recession delivered one blow. Now the apparent weakness of its presidential nominee-to-be is another. Add to those blows a big loss followed by an official reduction in legal status, a reduction in public perception and a reduction in federal subsidy and you have a party in extremis.

Could the Democrats survive dropping to minor party status and trying to get by on a shoestring budget?

After the disaster of 1912, the Republican Party came back to win the presidency in 1920, and after the disaster of 1924, the Democrats came back to win the presidency in 1932. So history doesn't rule it out.

But some political commentators -- for example Kevin Phillips -- believe 1992 is more like another year: 1856. That year a brand new third party nominated a relative newcomer to national politics for president. He led his Republicans to second place. A Democrat won. That year's traditional second major party came in third.

That was the Whigs, who dropped from 44 percent of the presidential vote in 1852 to 22 percent in 1856. The party died then and there.

The Democratic Party is the largest and oldest political organization in the nation. It is resourceful and resilient. It could survive and come back, I think. The Democratic Party is not the Whigs, I don't think. It is not going to die.

For one thing, Democrats almost surely will still control Congress in 1993. They could always pass a bill rewriting the laws to re-define "major" and "minor" parties and change the formula for providing parties federal campaign funds.

President Perot might even sign it.

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