The opening salvos of the 1998 election season have already begun. Republicans will try to hang onto the slimmest majority in the House of Representatives. Several governor's races will be hotly contested, including the big prize of California.
But for all the jockeying between Democrats and Republicans, the footsteps of minor-party candidates creeping up from behind just may be the ones to pay attention to in 1998. They won't win - but they could be kingmakers.
At its recent national convention, Ross Perot's Reform Party announced its intention to run as many as 50 candidates for Congress. Out of frustration with the failure of Republicans in Congress to support campaign-finance reform, the Reform Party plans to focus on races in which Republican incumbents are vulnerable.
The Reform Party is a real threat to the GOP. Republicans would lose control of the House by losing just 11 seats. Twenty-four Republican House members won their races last year with less than 51 percent of the vote. Reform Party candidates winning just 5 percent of the vote could help Democrats unseat Republicans across the nation.
Meanwhile, the Green Party is taking aim at the Democrats. The Green Party of California has formed an exploratory committee to run a slate of candidates for statewide offices. The Greens also are considering runs at key congressional seats held by vulnerable Democrats.
At the top of the ticket as the Greens' gubernatorial candidate is former Congressman Dan Hamburg, who represented California's first congressional district from 1993-95 as a Democrat. Early projections peg the race as extremely close, particularly if Republicans nominate Dan Lungren and the Democrats nominate Dianne Feinstein. Any vote for Mr. Hamburg almost certainly would mean one less for Ms. Feinstein.
It is clear that the Reform and Green Parties don't think they can win these elections. It is difficult for minor parties to win in a majoritarian "winner take all" voting system - most legislative elections in the US aren't competitive for two parties, let alone three.
But playing the role of spoiler allows minor parties to exercise leverage on their key issues. The Reform Party draws support from voters who tend to vote Republican.
That means Republicans have a choice: Comply with some of the Reform Party's demands or risk losing because of a Reform Party candidacy. George Bush might have won re-election had he responded to more of Ross Perot's demands - the combined vote of Perot and Bush would have defeated Bill Clinton in every state except Arkansas in 1992.
Some might see spoiler campaigns as a kamikaze strategy, but it already has made the Green Party a political force in New Mexico. New Mexico Greens recently spoiled possible wins for Democrats in races for governor and Congress. Now, some New Mexico Democrats are negotiating with Greens over various electoral reforms such as "instant runoff voting."
Instant runoff voting may be the most plausible reform for third parties to win since it helps both the third party and the threatened major party. Supporters of the minor parties won't waste their vote, and the major parties eliminate the danger of spoilers.
Using instant runoff voting in the California governor's race, for example, Green Party supporters could rank Hamburg first and a "lesser of two evils" Democrats second on their ballots. The ballot count simulates a runoff election in one round. If and when Hamburg finished behind the major-party candidates in total first-choice votes, he would be eliminated. His supporters' ballots then would be transferred to the second-ranked Democratic candidate. Hamburg thus gets a clean opportunity to run, but the Democratic nominee probably ends up with most votes first cast for Hamburg.
Both the Reform Party and the California Greens seem determined to carry out their threats. "I firmly believe that if there isn't another force out there, neither of the parties will reform themselves," says Reform Party chairwoman Jeanette Lenczyk.
When asked if he is worried about playing a spoiler to Feinstein, Hamburg says, "From our perspective, neither party has a vision for the future of our state or country. It's not so much about Dianne Feinstein or Dan Lungren, it's about the need for systemic change."
Hamburg says the spoiler strategy is the main tool the Greens have at this point. "Obviously, if we had a proportional representation electoral system, and a reasonably sane campaign-finance system, we could choose more conventional routes to achieve our goals. The system badly needs shaking up. The spoiler role affords us a means of doing that." Next year may be the year that victory goes to the spoilers. Stay tuned.
* Rob Richie is the executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.igc.org/cvd), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Washington. Steven Hill is the center's West Coast director in San Francisco.