David H. Freedman

That’s where the third-party possibilities get interesting. If the Democrats do go with a progressive, and if Trump or someone in his mold is the Republican candidate, voters will face one of the starkest electoral choices in American history: lurch further to the left than the nation has ever gone before, or further to the right.
Evidence suggests that most voters aren’t interested in either option, nor in the continuing cycles of outrage and conflict either of these extremes would likely entail. “The two major parties are more extreme than ever before,” says David Shor, head of data science with progressive nonprofit OpenLabs and a leading Democratic polling analyst. “At the same time, the percentage of people dissatisfied with the system is larger than ever.”

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Liz Cheney’s Ouster Makes a Third Political Party More Likely

    by David H. Freedman


    In a voice vote Wednesday morning, Republicans stripped the important role of House Republican Conference leader from Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, following her outspoken repudiation of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. In so doing, the GOP continues to make it abundantly clear for the foreseeable future it is the party of Trump.

    Which raises a question: Might Cheney, along with other prominent Republicans on the outs with the party because they have withheld fealty to the former president, mount their next election bids as independents—or even form a third party?

    The conventional wisdom says no, given the poor showings most independent candidates have historically turned in against the combined might of the two major parties. On the other hand, these are unconventional times in politics, and for the first time in decades the prospects for a third party may be better than poor.

    At the moment, those prospects largely depend on Joe Biden. He’s popular right now, at least by recent presidential standards. His 55-percent-and-climbing average approval ratings in the polls are far above the low-40s ratings in which Trump dwelled for almost his entire presidency and well above the mid-to-high-40s that held for most of Obama’s. And no wonder: The swift vaccine rollout is taming the pandemic, a big stimulus package has provided economic help, and a massive infrastructure program that could further prop up the economy is in the works.

    What about 2024? In his first press conference on March 25, Biden said it was his “expectation” to run but conceded there was some uncertainty. He’ll be 82 years old, nine years older than Ronald Reagan was when reelected. Before then, Biden will have to navigate the midterm elections and, perhaps, two years of a hostile Congress. By then, Democrats may well be clamoring to give Vice President Kamala Harris or another more progressive and youthful candidate a shot at leading the party and the country.

    That’s where the third-party possibilities get interesting. If the Democrats do go with a progressive, and if Trump or someone in his mold is the Republican candidate, voters will face one of the starkest electoral choices in American history: lurch further to the left than the nation has ever gone before, or further to the right.

    Evidence suggests that most voters aren’t interested in either option, nor in the continuing cycles of outrage and conflict either of these extremes would likely entail. “The two major parties are more extreme than ever before,” says David Shor, head of data science with progressive nonprofit OpenLabs and a leading Democratic polling analyst. “At the same time, the percentage of people dissatisfied with the system is larger than ever.”

    While Biden’s early tentative successes have for the moment subdued the polarization that was laid bare in the previous administration, most observers expect dissatisfaction with the two major parties to come roaring back to the surface soon—perhaps in the coming months as campaigning starts in earnest for the midterm elections—and continue right through to 2024.

    A third party could be the way out. Many political observers seem to think so. In the past year there has been more talk of the need for a new centrist political party than there has been in over a century. Several political organizations have sprung up to create or support new alternatives to the two major parties, and some are starting to gain traction. “Since the January 6 attack on the capitol, unsolicited traffic to our website is up 10,000 percent compared a year ago, and donations are up 2,000 percent,” says David Jolly, a former Republican U.S. Congressman from Florida and now executive chairman of the Serve America Movement, an independent party formed in 2017. “We haven’t seen this sort of movement toward a new party in years.”

    A third-party president in 2024 is not the most likely outcome, but neither is it far-fetched.

    Falling barriers

    There is reason to think that things might be different in 2024. For starters, record numbers of voters say they want a third party, including 46 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of independents, according to a Gallup poll in early February. Only a third of Americans say the two major parties adequately represent the public, a historically low number for the poll. Meanwhile, half of voters currently say they are independents, a record high.

    Because the vast majority of independents tend to drift toward one of the two major parties as election day approaches, most of the votes for a third-party candidate would have to be diverted from one or both of those parties. Few people question that the Republican party, at least, is currently primed to leak a substantial fraction of its once-dependable voters. State voter records indicate that in the weeks following the January attack on the Capitol more than 100,000 registered Republicans took the trouble to delist themselves from the party’s rolls.

    Seeing this initial wavering of support, Trump and many of his most loyal supporters immediately talked of forming a breakaway “Patriot Party.” But Trump soon abandoned that idea, insisting he would maintain control of the Republican party—if not as the 2024 candidate, then as the party kingmaker looking to anoint Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Josh Hawley or some other supplicant. That declaration of control, in turn, led to an early February Zoom meeting of some 120 current and former Republican officials and activists to discuss an anti-Trump spinoff from the party. Many prominent moderate Republican leaders beyond Cheney have already openly expressed their disgust with Trumpian Republicanism, including Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, while others have left or are planning to leave politics, including Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Ohio’s Rob Portman, and Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent and Pat Toomey.

    To be sure, the path to a formal split remains murky, and Trump appears to remain largely dominant. But the breakaway talk is strong evidence of internal turmoil that leaves the Republican party ripe for voter defections. “At least 20 to 30 percent of Republican voters want a new direction,” says Evan McMullin, a former Republican activist turned independent, and now co-executive director of Stand Up Republic, which organizes fundraising and outreach in support of anti-Trump, center-right candidates. “There’s an opportunity for a pro-democracy movement to give people from the right a new home that’s more comfortable for them.”

    A new party consisting mainly of former Republicans would simply split the Republican vote, leaving itself and the remaining Republican party uncompetitive. To have a shot at winning, a new party would need a chunk of the Democratic party, too. Even with Democrats currently riding high in the early days of the Biden administration, there’s no guarantee the party will hang together between now and 2024—not least because the party is poised to move left in a way that could leave many of its voters uncomfortable. “Joe Biden is proving to be the right person at the right time for the party, but I’d be shocked if he runs again,” says Russ Tremayne, a historian at the College of Southern Idaho who studies U.S. elections. “That would open up a real divide in the party between progressives and moderates.”

    If there were a front-runner to replace Biden, should he step aside in 2024, it would be Vice President Harris. Harris has some progressive credentials: She was one of the first senators to back Bernie Sanders’ call for Medicare for All; she stood in line with McDonald’s workers striking for a $15 minimum wage during her own 2020 primary run for the presidency; and as a woman of color she could be expected to be a compelling advocate for racial justice.

    But progressives have also expressed frustration with what they see as Harris’ inconsistent record on key issues. As a prosecutor she defended the death penalty and pursued cannabis convictions. She ultimately disavowed support for Medicare-for-All in favor of private insurance. And in March she declined to go to the mat on the $15 minimum wage when Senate Republicans refused to include it in the COVID-19 stimulus package.

    Whether out of frustration with the perceived failures of the Biden administration to push for progressive goals, or flush with whatever successes the administration can achieve, progressives may well push for a more aggressive candidate than Harris in a hypothetical 2024 search. Should the U.S. be dragged into a major recession, an unpopular military conflict, or a new public-health crisis, the demand for an uber-progressive could be all the more intense. That could be Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, or even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who will reach the minimum presidential age two months before inauguration day). Any of those candidates, or someone in their mold, might well leave moderate Democratic voters open to a centrist third party.

    Traditionally, the opportunity for drawing away moderate Democratic voters has come with candidates who combine economically conservative policies with more liberal social positions, much as Arnold Schwarzenegger once did in California. But when it comes to today’s Democratic party, the opposite is likely the better strategy, says polling analyst Shor. That’s because some of the policies and stances pushed by many progressives, including “cancel culture,” Medicare-for-all, defunding the police, reparations, and looser immigration controls, tend to be turnoffs not only to older white Democrats, but also—perhaps surprisingly—to a big percentage of minority voters. Defunding the police, for example, is an idea supported by only 34 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of Black Americans, according to an early March Ipsos/USA Today poll,

    Nearly a third of Black and Hispanic voters label themselves conservative, according to polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. “The share of non-white voters in the Democratic party is large and only going up,” says Shor, “and those voters are substantially more moderate than white Democratic voters.” The hyping of hot-button issues by young, white, college-educated progressives is pushing moderate working-class minorities away from the party, he claims. Many Democratic leaders blamed the loss of a dozen seats in the House in 2020 on progressive stances.

    That dynamic is already playing out in California, says Tom Campbell, a former five-term Republican Congressman who is now chair of the centrist Common Sense Party and a professor of economics and law at Chapman University in Orange, California. Campbell points to a November ballot measure pushed by progressives that would have opened the door to affirmative-action programs in the state government, including state university admissions. (Such programs are currently prohibited by state law). The measure was rejected, Campbell says, largely through the opposition of Hispanic and Asian voters. “Our party is getting substantial numbers of former Democrats who believe the party is moving too far to the left,” he says. “They’re rejecting progressive orthodoxy, and that’s giving us a winning strategy.”

    The ability for a centrist third party to draw some Democrats could make the math work in a presidential election. If a third party took most independent voters, a third of Republicans, and a fifth of Democrats, it would win.

    Mixed history

    Conventional wisdom holds that the country’s voting processes favor major parties, and that new parties are crushed by the fundraising and voter-outreach infrastructures the two major parties have built over more than 150 years.

    Pundits and academics sometimes cite “Duverger’s law” in dismissing third-party runs as sure losers in the U.S. voting system. The “law”—it’s really just a rule of thumb—notes that countries in which voters get a single vote for a single candidate in a single round of voting usually end up with strong two-party systems. That voting set-up tends to raise the bar on third-party candidates, because getting almost as many votes as the leader is still a flat-out loss; in countries with more flexible voting systems, a second- or even third-place finish can force run-offs and power-sharing. But, as Shor notes, several countries with voting systems like the U.S.’s have effective third parties, including the U.K., Canada, India and the Philippines. “It’s a terrible law,” he says. “The U.S. is really the exception in not having strong third parties with this type of voting, not the rule.”

    And the U.S. isn’t entirely an exception. In the nineteenth century important third parties were plentiful. They included the Know-Nothing Party, the Free Soil Party, and the Whig Party. The latter was eventually knocked out of contention by an even newer third party called the Republican Party, led by a former Whig Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Since then, the only truly competitive third-party presidential run came in 1912, when former two-term President Theodore Roosevelt lost the Republican nomination to William Howard Taft and formed the Progressive Party in order to run, coming in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

    The only two third-party runs in modern politics to attract more than a tiny share of votes were Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 1992, which garnered just under 20 percent of the vote, and George Wallace’s American Independent Party, which in 1968 pulled in about 14 percent of the vote. Otherwise third parties have at best served as spoilers to whichever of the two major parties they most drew votes from. In 2000 Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy pulled in less than three percent of the vote, but that was enough to tip the election from Al Gore to George W. Bush. Likewise, the Green Party’s Jill Stein drew enough votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016 to account for Trump’s margin of victory.

    Perot’s centrist run, which drew almost equally from both major parties, is often taken as proof of concept for modern third parties, especially given the fact that he was leading the race early on but gave away his momentum when he temporarily dropped out of the race mid-way. Still, the two major parties have access to vast levels of funding, staff, volunteer networks, and donor and voter lists which they can deploy to target and bombard voters with messages aimed at keeping them in line.

    Charlie Crist, currently a Democratic Congressman for Florida, got to feel the full brunt of that machinery back in 2010 when he was a Republican governor for the state running for the Senate. When the Republican party nominated Marco Rubio in his place because of Crist’s support for Obama’s recovery effort, Crist continued his Senate run as an independent. “I saw how difficult it was,” he says. He ended up with 30 percent of the vote, compared to Rubio’s 49 percent, and later became a Democrat.

    As for the major parties’ massive fund-raising and voter-outreach infrastructures, many experts and politicians believe that machinery can be overcome with the right candidate armed with the right policy mix and backed by savvy marketing, especially in a progressive-versus-Trumpian faceoff. Right now, they say, that strategy would involve loudly embracing broadly popular economic programs such as a higher minimum wage, increasing spending on education, and modestly expanding Medicare coverage—while quietly taking vaguely middle-of-the-road views on hot-button cultural issues that tend to divide voters, such as defending women’s right to choose but only up to a certain point in a pregnancy, supporting the right to own guns but beefing up background checks, calling for efforts to crack down on police racism while objecting to defunding departments, and limiting immigration but supporting dreamer-type programs. “There are ways to finesse some of these issues to avoid drawing attention to them,” says Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “You can talk about law and order without sounding like a white supremacist.”

    That’s the sort of strategy that both Jolly’s Serve America Movement and Campbell’s Common Sense Party are planning to enlist in 2022 and 2024. Campbell has been focusing on state-legislation elections in California for now, where he says the biggest barrier to running as an independent is the up-front one of getting on the ballot by getting 73,000 voters to register for the party. “We were signing up 10,000 voters a month before the pandemic hit and we had to shut down,” he says, adding that the effort will spin up again in April. The party has targeted seven of the state’s 80 districts, and if it can win those elections it will have enough votes to swing most state legislation. At that point the party will start targeting other states and even elections for national office, with the goal of gaining some high-profile wins that build the party’s credibility and sway.

    Jolly, too, sees his party as poised to start building influence, boosted by high-tech data tools that he says Silicon Valley companies are offering to make available to him in order to punch above the party’s weight when it comes to targeting voters. “We think voters are ready to split evenly between Democrat, Republican and independent,” he says. “All we have to do is establish a brand and front a candidate with name recognition.”

    Finding a messenger

    That need to find just the right candidate to steal enough votes from the two big parties is a challenge for the third-party movement. “The candidates who did well with third parties, like Theodore Roosevelt and George Wallace, already had a lot of stature when they entered their races,” says Patterson. “You need someone like that in order to get enough early momentum to overcome Republicans’ and Democrats’ advantages.” Without a well-known, riveting character to front the party and make a quick splash, he says, most voters will dismiss a third-party candidate as someone who can’t win and isn’t worth wasting a vote on, even if they like the candidate’s positions.

    A big, well-timed endorsement might be enough to do the trick, notes Crist. “It was amazing to watch what Jim Clyburn’s endorsement did for Joe Biden,” he says, referring to the South Carolina Congressman’s February 2020 electrifying endorsement a few days before the state’s primary. “It raised him like Lazarus. After that, he was rolling.”

    Biden, of course, wasn’t a third-party candidate, and it could be difficult convincing real contenders to abandon a major party to be one—especially given how relatively easy it is to simply throw one’s hat in the ring of a major party’s primaries. What’s more, notes William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, Democratic candidates in particular might fear that jumping to a third party and siphoning away Democratic votes might unintentionally open the door to their worst nightmare. “The specter of Trump holding onto power has united the Democrats for now,” says Frey. “If Trump runs again, the same might happen.”

    But the Trump-unites-Democrats theory may not hold if the Democrats go too boldly progressive heading into 2024. The resulting gap could invite a third-party run from one of Congress’s highly visible moderate Democrats, such as Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, or an anti-Trump moderate Republican like Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger—or even from a celebrity like actor Matthew McConaughey, who has already expressed interest in the Texas governership without aligning with either major party.

    Even if a sufficiently well-known, charismatic candidate doesn’t materialize as a third-party candidate by then, that doesn’t mean a third-party movement can’t influence the election, perhaps by pressuring one or both major parties to nominate someone on the moderate side. “Becoming a major national party isn’t necessarily our only goal,” says Stand Up Republic’s McMullin. “Even if we can get only five percent of the voting public behind us, we’d have a lot to do with deciding who holds power in Washington.” A third-party candidate positioned to win just a handful of states could even threaten to prevent either major-party candidate from winning the required 270 electoral votes, which would send the election decision to Congress, where anything could happen. Perot almost pulled that scary trick off in his run.

    Ultimately, though, McMullin’s and the other growing third parties all say they hope to field candidates who run to win. It may not be a pipe dream. “The conditions are more favorable to an independent candidate than they have been in a long time,” says Harvard’s Patterson.

    Perhaps what the party of Lincoln did to the Whigs, one of these parties will do to the party of Lincoln.

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