In Madison, of all places, third parties should flourish.

The city is rife with intellectuals and creative class types — the people who pride themselves on eschewing conventional wisdom.

It is also the capital of a state with a long history of strong third parties, from the Socialist Party, which dominated Milwaukee politics for decades, to the Progressive Party, which competed with Republicans for control of state government in the 1930s and 1940s.

The argument for third parties is rather simple: The two major parties aren't good enough. A third party gives voters more options to express their views, and it puts pressure on the two major parties to respond to people who are dissatisfied with the status quo.

But third parties have had fewer successes in recent years, despite what should make them especially viable in Madison: the near absence of one of the two major parties — the GOP — from local politics.

"When I think about the annual Fighting Bob Fest or what happened at the Capitol, that sort of populism, it's still there, it's not just a few people," says Madison Ald. Marsha Rummel, who has joined several attempts by Madison leftists in the last few decades to offer an alternative to what they see as a complacent Democratic Party.

Their high point recently was Progressive Dane's vibrant period about a decade ago, when its members occupied seats of influence on the City Council, Dane County Board and, ultimately, the mayor's office.

But like most third parties, PD's golden era faded, victim to America's political culture and structure, which treats third parties more as a nuisance than an asset.

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The Labor and Farm Party was formed in Madison after a number of union militants decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. William Proxmire in 1982, says Rummel, who served as the party's treasurer. Their candidate, William Osborne Hart, was a longtime socialist activist and perennial candidate who later ran in the 1984 presidential primary.

Although Hart did not come close to competing with Proxmire, he won more than 1 percent of the vote in the state, allowing the LFP to gain ballot status in the next election.

The party was relatively successful in Madison, eventually electing four members to the City Council and one member to the School Board within the first five years of its existence.

Others who were active in party leadership have become familiar names in local politics. In addition to Rummel, who now represents the quirky near-east side on the City Council, John Hendrick, who sat on the LFP Steering Committee, is now vice-chair of the Dane County Board and is poised to become chair next session, succeeding Scott McDonell, who was elected county clerk.

Outside of Madison, however, the Labor and Farm Party struggled to gain traction. Despite requirements that the party hold meetings in different areas of the state and reserve leadership positions for out-state members, there is no indication, from documents or former members, that the group ever won elections outside of the state's capital city.

In the pre-Internet age, recruiting members across a large state and keeping in touch with them was a tall order for a group with such limited resources. The little money the party raised — from member dues and selling burgers at the Mifflin Street Block Party — was hardly enough to cover the costs of printing its newsletters. "LFP's financial situation is, to be blunt, very bad," stated a party newsletter in February 1991 that urged members to contribute.

UW-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers came up with a plan to gain LFP statewide relevance, using "electoral fusion," in which a candidate appears on the ballot as the nominee of multiple parties.

Secretary of State Doug La Follette liked the idea, and agreed to run for re-election in 1990 as a candidate for the Democratic Party and the Labor and Farm Party. Voters would be able to either vote for his name on the Democratic line or the LFP line, thus allowing progressives to show their support for the minor party without "wasting" their vote.

The plan was hatched with the full recognition that Wisconsin, like most other states, has a law that does not allow multiparty nominations. LFP sued to overturn the law, arguing it violated individuals' First Amendment right to freedom of association. But a federal appeals court upheld the state law, and the hope of electoral fusion in the Badger State died. Shortly thereafter, the Labor and Farm Party died as well.

Rogers persisted. Together with progressive activists in New York, he founded the New Party, which was intended to boost leftist third parties using fusion voting. Today, in the nine states that allow some form of electoral fusion, descendents of the New Party have had some successes. In New York, the Working Families Party has become particularly influential since its founding in 1998. Although most of its candidates are also Democrats, it occasionally will run its own candidates, thus pressuring Democrats to avoid moving too much to the center.

"(Working Families) has definitely been a counterweight that has pushed the Democrats to the left," says Rogers, who attributes a number of progressive policy initiatives, such as a recent minimum wage increase in New York, to the success of the third party.

The challenge in attempting to pass a law allowing fusion elsewhere, of course, is that neither major party has any incentive to support a law that might give rise to competitors. Democrats in Oregon, who recently passed legislation legalizing the practice, are a notable exception. There have been no such attempts by Wisconsin Democrats or Republicans in recent years.

In Wisconsin, therefore, third parties have continued to be largely confined to local politics, particularly in Dane County. That's helped by the fact that local races in Wisconsin are nonpartisan, meaning many voters aren't aware of a candidate's party affiliation.

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The most important local third party is Progressive Dane, a group founded in 1994 as a descendant of Rogers' New Party. Rogers and others hoped it would be a national movement, with affiliates around the state and country, such as Progressive Milwaukee and Progressive Missoula (Montana).

After several years, only Progressive Dane remained. Today, PD claims to be the only independent, local political party in the country. Part of its success stems from the wide range of partisan affiliations of its members. Some are Democrats, others are Greens or socialists.

PD quickly became a significant force in city and county politics in the years following its founding. By the end of the decade, the group held eight seats on the City Council and six seats on the County Board.

County Supervisor John Hendrick was a founding member of PD and credits the party for working to pass a living wage ordinance in the 1990s.

Hendrick, who is also a member of the Dane County Democrats, says groups such as PD help hold liberal officeholders to their promises.

"I think the possibility of third parties keeps the political system healthy," he says.

In 2003, the group's endorsed candidate for mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, narrowly defeated Paul Soglin, who many on the left perceived as a political moderate too closely aligned with business interests.

Looking back, Cieslewicz attributes the party's success to a formidable "ground game" of enthusiastic volunteers and veteran political activists.

Brenda Konkel, a former co-chair of PD and former Madison alder, says the party's success was largely based on its value as a group of dedicated, informed community advocates. PD members were fixtures at city and county committee hearings, either as citizen members of the panels or citizens providing testimony on policy proposals. Indeed, Konkel's current blog, Forward Lookout, includes endless discussions of the nitty-gritty of city government.

"For all intents and purposes, they're the (city's) governing party right now," Cieslewicz said about Progressive Dane in a 2005 interview with the State Journal. At the time, Cieslewicz, a self-described "liberal Democrat," saw PD as an important part of a center-left governing coalition on the council.

However, as Cieslewicz's tenure progressed, the rookie mayor found himself increasingly frustrated with party leaders, particularly Konkel. He also had begun to question some of the PD-backed policies he previously supported, such as the establishment of an inclusionary zoning ordinance to allow for more mixed-income neighborhoods.

Cieslewicz also believed that PD, like many minor political movements, was being led by activists who did not truly want to govern. To be in a position of authority — to enter the halls of power rather than protest from the outside — would undermine the sense of victimhood that he felt guided their ideology.

"They had no positive vision for the city," he says. "They became trapped in their resentments."

Even if Cieslewicz's analysis of Progressive Dane activists is too harsh, many others agree that PD, like many third parties, was dependent on a few key personalities.

When former Ald. Austin King, a charismatic student activist who had won the hearts of many city leaders, left the city in 2007 to pursue activism elsewhere, the party struggled to maintain its link to the student community, a key constituency for a successful leftist group.

Although Leland Pan, a UW student and PD member, won election to the County Board this year, the turnout in the student-dominated 5th District was barely half of what it was in years when other PD activists, such as Ashok Kumar and Echnaton Vedder, handily beat moderate opponents with strong backing from an engaged student community.

Cieslewicz officially cut ties with Progressive Dane in 2007 and nevertheless easily won re-election over Ray Allen, a local businessman whose affiliation with the GOP made him virtually unelectable in Madison.

That year, the Democratic Party of Dane County implemented rules intended to discourage its members from affiliating with Progressive Dane. Candidates who sought endorsement from any other party were not eligible for the Democratic endorsement. Only through a two-thirds vote to suspend the local party's rules could a PD-backed candidate receive the Democrats' backing as well.

Through attrition and losses in key races, PD's presence on the council was gradually reduced in following years. Konkel, the face of the party, lost her own race for re-election in 2009 to a political novice, Bridget Maniaci, a former Cieslewicz intern. The city establishment was so frustrated with Konkel that Cieslewicz and two former Madison mayors, Soglin and Joe Sensenbrenner, made the rare move of actively campaigning against an incumbent alder.

Even in the city's student-dominated 8th District, a place where leftists should perform well, PD candidates have lost three consecutive races. Currently, only four members of the City Council affiliate with PD.

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Progressive Dane is nevertheless a stunning success compared to state and national third parties.

There are currently no members of organized third parties in the state Legislature. In Congress, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are independents, with Sanders referring to himself as a "Democratic Socialist."

Why, out of the hundreds of federal elections and thousands of state elections, are third parties apparently doomed to failure?

According to political scientists, the "wasted vote" phenomenon is the largest obstacle. While it exists to a certain extent in most democratic countries, that notion that a citizen who backs a third-party candidate is throwing away his or her vote is especially powerful in the United States, where the rules have always been stacked against third parties.

The first impediment to a third party gaining traction is the winner-take-all system of general elections, in which a candidate can win without receiving an outright majority of votes. Bill Clinton, for instance, did not garner more than 50 percent of the vote in either of his landslide victories in 1992 and 1996.

While it is unclear if Ross Perot, the third-party candidate in those races, took votes away from Clinton's Republican opponents, it was entirely possible that Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election because many left-leaning voters cast ballots for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

The second impediment is single-member congressional districts. In other countries, multiple parties thrive because voters go the polls to vote for a party rather than a single candidate. The party's vote total corresponds to the number of seats it wins in a parliament, for instance.

Here, however, a third party could win 10 percent in every legislative election and not win one seat in Congress. Perot's 20 percent of the vote in 1992 got the Reform Party little more than an ego boost.

Because of this political structure, Democrats and Republicans often view third-party candidates — even those with whom they largely agree politically — with disdain. Indeed, a number of Democrats left Progressive Dane in 2000 after the group endorsed Nader.

"Progressives and liberals were fighting among themselves and George W. Bush got elected president," says state Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, who left PD in 2000. "That's the best lesson that liberals and progressives have to work together."

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By some measures, President Barack Obama is an utterly unacceptable choice for the left. Those who hoped his administration would signal an end to an era defined by military adventures, human rights abuses and civil liberty infringements have been horrified by the president's expansion of the war in Afghanistan, his extensive use of drone warfare against suspected terrorists in sovereign nations (including against American citizens) and the use of indefinite detention against those suspected of terrorism.

And yet, when Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, spoke at Fighting Bob Fest, the annual progressive gathering held here in September, her stinging criticisms of the president appeared to fall on a lot of deaf ears. Many attendees who rose to applaud her denunciations of war and corporate domination of government sat on their hands as Stein accused Obama of embodying many of the worst aspects of the Bush era.

Ald. Rummel, who refers to Obama as a "triangulator," concedes that most people she knows, even within her political circle, will likely vote for Obama, in spite of their disappointments.

"If there was a strong socialist or Green Party I would probably vote for one of those," says Paul Baker, a UW employee I find shopping at Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative. "But (there isn't), so I'll vote for Obama."

Another voter, Katie Umhoefer, who was volunteering at the bookstore, says Obama may be a letdown, but that he is a far better choice than Mitt Romney, whom she says "has no soul."

"(Obama) totally disappointed me but the alternative is so horrible," she says.

Third-party attempts at winning seats in the Wisconsin Legislature have been similarly fruitless. State Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, an independent from Manitowoc, is the only current legislator who does not belong to either party. He had already served in office for two decades as a Democrat, however, before he decided to leave the party and run as an independent in 2010. His name recognition in his district, he says, is the only reason his candidacy was viable.

In fact, it was considered a great victory for third-party politics when, in 2010, Green Party candidate Ben Manski garnered 30 percent of the vote against Democratic candidate Brett Hulsey in a race to represent an Assembly district that covers Madison's west side.

Manski, who raised $30,000 and received the backing of a number of key local groups, such as the Madison teachers and firefighters unions, nevertheless struggled to capture the attention of voters, many of whom were focused on top-of-the-ballot races for U.S. Senate and the governorship.

This year, Hulsey is yet again being challenged by a Green Party candidate, Jonathan Dedering.

"Democrats don't really represent the views of people who are left of center," Dedering says. "They're pretty much bought out by the same interests that have bought out the Republicans."

And yet even Dedering says he will likely vote for Obama.

"If I can convince myself that Romney's going to tank, I'll vote for Jill Stein," he says. However, if recent polling holds up that shows the presidential race to be a dead heat, Dedering will end up voting for what he sees as the lesser of two evils.

"Electoral work is degrading because the two parties have set up a system to defend themselves," says Erika Wolf, a Madisonian who serves as the field director for Stein's campaign. "And you have the media owned by the establishment parties and the debates owned by the establishment parties."

Indeed, Manski, who is now Stein's national campaign manager, criticizes pollsters for not including third parties in their surveys, particularly the Greens and Libertarians, which are the two largest.

"Polls that include these two major independent parties are almost always the most accurate," he said in a message to reporters criticizing UW professor Charles Franklin for not including third-party candidates in the polls he's running this year as a visiting professor at Marquette University Law School.

Franklin points out that the level of support for third parties in statewide races has been extremely low in recent years, often totaling less than 1 percent of the electorate. In a poll of only several hundred people, therefore, it is difficult to reliably gauge support for a third-party candidate.

"The system strongly discourages third parties from existing," he says. "The way (outside movements) usually gain power is by taking over another party, either through the primary system or the demise of another party."

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a strong GOP presidential candidate this year, and his libertarian followers have threatened to take over the Republican Party in recent years, but were ultimately defeated, not only in the primaries, but at the national party convention this year, when Paul delegates were shut out of the process by the party establishment. As a result, many of Paul's supporters will be casting futile ballots for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson for president.

In the grand scheme of things, strong third parties can serve as "spoilers." Former Gov. Jim Doyle, for instance, can attribute his 2002 victory over Republican Scott McCallum to the Libertarian candidacy of Ed Thompson, former Gov. Tommy Thompson's younger brother. Ed Thompson, harnessing the powerful brand of his elder brother, won 10.5 percent of the vote, likely drawing votes away from the Republican ticket, which received 41.4 percent of the vote.

Thus, the many people who prefer Republicans to Democrats, for instance, are most likely helping Democrats when they vote for the Libertarian Party.

But on an individual level, one person's vote probably doesn't matter either way. It's highly improbable that one vote will determine the outcome of an election.

Nevertheless, that virtually impossible notion keeps millions of Americans from voting for third-party candidates who more closely represent their beliefs.

Wolf, the Green Party operative, says the electoral system, as it exists now, is hopeless. Nevertheless, she works tirelessly to promote doomed candidates.

"One way is to say, 'Oh this is all a joke,'" she muses. "But another way is to say it's a joke but wouldn't it be great if it weren't?"

Says her colleague, Manski: "That's why we need a democracy movement in the United States."

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.