| New York State has an unusual way of conducting elections. Here, one candidate can run for office on the ballot lines of more than one political party. All votes each candidate receives on all lines get added up into one final total - it's called "fusion voting," and it's actually not permitted in most states. But it adds a very interesting wrinkle to New York politics.
For instance, back in 1993, the corrupt and thankfully defunct Liberal Party gave its line in the NYC mayor's race to Rudy Giuliani. This gave Democrats who opposed David Dinkins but couldn't countenance pulling the Republican lever a way to vote for Rudy that salved their consciences (even if it had zero practical effect). Giuliani scored some 62,000 votes on the Liberal line, but won by only 57K overall, putting him forever in Liberal chair Ray Harding's debt. This debt was repaid through patronage, a common stock-in-trade for Harding - and an activity he was eventually indicted for last year (in connection with his dealings with Alan Hevesi).
Not all third-party behavior in New York is this colorful or unseemly. There are fewer small parties today than in the past, and only three of them matter: the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. To get on the ballot in the first place, you need to undertake a difficult, state-wide signature drive. To stay on the ballot, you need to get at least 50,000 votes for governor on your line every four years. Most minor parties, like the Green Party or the Right to Life Party, can't sustain this and eventually wither. (Same with the Liberals.) The survivors, however, endure.
The Conservatives, as you'd expect, almost always cross-endorse Republicans (though occasionally they back Democrats). They act as a grumpy right-ward pressure group and have been known to split the vote in favor of Democrats - remember NY-23 last year? (Something similar also happened in the same region in a race which led to Dem David Valesky getting elected to the state Senate a few years ago.)
The Independence Party, near as I can tell, is a vestige from the Ross Perot days (though it was founded shortly before his presidential run). My personal opinion is that it remains a force because enough people register as members thinking instead that they are registering as "independents." (To do that in NY, you need to leave the party selection box on your registration form blank.) Plenty of people probably vote that line for similar reasons. The IP doesn't have much of a platform and sometimes experiences local power struggles reminiscent of the SDS, but for any politician craving the aura of "independence" (ie, all of them), it's a bonus.
Finally, there's the most potent of the bunch, the Working Families Party. Formed in 1998 as the Liberal Party was clearly dying, they are by far the best organized and most powerful of the bunch. They are tightly aligned with NY's unions and stake out a pretty progressive platform. They also offer a lot more than just their ballot line - a full-fledged WFP endorsement comes with serious field resources as well. At the federal level, they've cross-endorsing Dems since 2000. (They've supported some Republicans at other levels in the past, but I've already expressed enough grar about that to last a lifetime.)
Anyhow, by my count, the WFP has provided the margin of victory in five House races in New York. They are:
The next-best "near-miss" performance was Dan Maffei's run against Jim Walsh in 2006, which he lost by just 3,400 votes (and where the WFP supplied 6,500). On the flipside, Mike Arcuri's close shave had very little margin for error - without the WFP line, he would have won by just 465 votes, instead of 9,919. And incidentally, the Working Families Party has also found its way into neighboring Connecticut, where they gave their line to all five Democrats who ran for Congress in 2008. That year, they helped pad out Jim Himes's victory from fewer than 3,000 votes to almost 12,000.
The bottom line is that the WFP's recent decision not to back any Democrats who vote against healthcare reform can and very likely will have a material impact on the 2010 elections. In recent years, almost every Dem running for federal office in NY has gotten the WFP line. For vulnerable Democrats in close races, if the WFP endorsement is not forthcoming, it will be missed.