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

CAMPAIGN '92

June 14, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr. | THEO LIPPMAN Jr.,Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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.

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