ALTHOUGH the states have thrown up formidable obstacles to third-party presidential candidacies, the federal government has nonetheless provided a certain potential inducement: money. Under the provisions of the Federal Election Reform Act of 1974, general invitations to a New Party (as in coattails, not cocktails) may very well be extended some time in the next few weeks. This New Party will be open to voters who may be less than totally enthusiastic about the likely choices for president next November.
The election reform act provides matching funds for the presidential primary candidates of both major parties and full funding for their presidential nominees in the general election. The act also provides instructrions on how to start a new, or third, party and how that party can qualify for matching public funds.
Any and all third-party candidates are limited to maximum individual campaign contributions of $1,000 from any citizen. But for a New Party, there exists one of those indigenous-to-Washington exceptions that cynics insist upon calling a loophole. Truly concerned citizens who feel smothered by the $1,000 limit on their individual contributions to candidates can shake that feeling by contributing up to $20,000 to the Party.
The Party (New, Democratic or Republican) can spend such contributions (up to a total of nearly $5 million) in behalf of the Party's candidates for office.
But to qualify under the law as a New Party, the founders must actually found a party. That is, they must do the things that parties historically have done: choose delegates to a convention, hold a convention, select candidates.
If all of this is done, and if the New Party can be listed on the ballots of at least 10 states, then a second provision of the election act may become applicable. While the New Party candidate for president will have to finance his general election campaign out of individual contributions (unlike the Democrats and the Republicans), if the New Party candidate receives more than 5 percent of the national vote, he will be eligible for matching funds after the election. For example, if the Democrat received 40 percent of the November vote, the Republican 40 percent and the New Party candidate 20 percent, then the New Party candidate, after the election, would be entitled to a check for half the amount of the major parties' federal subsidy, or about $15 million.
What we are talking about, of course, are the conditions under which John Anderson, or perhaps some other politicians, might yet choose to launch a New Party. This mission, should one of them choose to accept it, would involve complications extending well beyond those discussed here. It does seem at least theoretically possible, however, that if somebody smart really wanted to create a New Party, it could be done.