Voters look at both major parties and ask, is this all there is?

  • By Story Hinckley Staff writer, Christian Science Monitor, WASHINGTON

At a time when the nation’s partisan divide appears nearly insurmountable – with Republicans and Democrats in Congress unable to agree on much of anything – a growing number of Americans appear to be saying “a pox on both your houses.”

According to a February Gallup Poll, a record 62% of voters say the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” representing the American people that a new third party is needed. The dissatisfaction is particularly acute on the Republican side, with 63% of GOP voters agreeing with that statement, compared with 46% of Democrats.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been under strain in recent years, as their far-right and far-left wings have played more prominent roles. For Democrats, that tension was on display in the past two presidential primaries, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders drew sizable and passionate crowds but ultimately came up short against more mainstream rivals.

But it’s the Republican Party that seems to be nearing a possible breaking point in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s loss and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, frustrated with establishment officials they view as disloyal, have floated the idea of a new political party, although Trump advisers deny that the former president has third-party ambitions. A recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll of Trump voters found that 46% would support a “Trump Party” while just 27% would stick with the GOP instead.

Mr. Trump’s Republican critics, meanwhile, are pondering their own alternatives. Earlier this month, more than 120 former Republican politicians and operatives held a Zoom call to discuss a new party that would focus on “principled conservatism.”

America’s two-party system has been entrenched throughout much of the nation’s history. Breaking up that political duopoly would be difficult if not impossible, say experts, requiring substantial money and coordination, as well as structural changes such as the adoption of ranked-choice voting.

But party crackups have happened before: The current Republican Party was founded in 1854 amid the rubble of the Whig Party’s irreconcilable differences over slavery.

And a growing number of voters seem to feel the system isn’t working. According to Gallup, just 37% of Americans view the Republican Party favorably right now, while 48% hold a favorable view of the Democrats. Many third-party adherents say the two major parties are no longer capable of addressing the nation’s substantial challenges – blaming Washington gridlock on a binary political structure that rewards opposition more than cooperation.

“People are genuinely concerned or afraid of what the future holds,” says Darcy Richardson, national chair and 2020 vice presidential nominee of the Alliance Party, which was created in 2019. “People are beginning to look around and think ‘Is this as good as it’s going to get? Are these parties going to solve the pressing problems we have?’”

Party registrations dropping

Of the 31 states that track party data, many saw registrations for both major parties go down after Election Day – and then drop again following the riot at the Capitol, particularly among Republicans. Some of those changes may have been due to states cleaning up their voter rolls, but in many cases, the size of the shifts likely also reflects voter intent.

In Colorado, more than 2,300 Republican voters left the GOP between November and January – followed by nearly 14,500 who left the GOP after Jan. 6. Colorado’s Democratic Party, meanwhile, has lost around 2,800 voters since November. Last month alone, Florida’s Republican Party lost more than 30,000 voters and its Democratic Party lost almost 17,000. So far in 2021, more than 11,500 voters have left the GOP in Pennsylvania, and almost 2,700 have left the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, third parties have witnessed the opposite trend.

Since Election Day, Colorado’s Libertarian and Constitution parties have gained hundreds of voters each, while “unaffiliated” rose by more than 9,000 voters between November and January – and then by 23,000 voters in the month of January alone. Likewise, Florida’s “minor party” category gained almost 9,600 voters in January. In Pennsylvania, “other” has received more than three times as many online voter applications in 2021 as “Republican.”

The Libertarian Party’s voter registration overall in January 2021 was up 20% over January 2020, says Joe Bishop-Henchman, chair of the party’s national committee, which he calls “very unusual” for a non-election year.

“We’re hearing from people who watched what happened at the Capitol, and they’re saying, ‘That’s not my party,’” says Mr. Bishop-Henchman. “It’s a bright time for us.”

“It’s unbelievable,” agrees David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who is now chairman of the Serve America Movement, or SAM Party. SAM, a center-right group, was founded in 2017 by former officials in the George W. Bush administration.

“We started to see an uptick in December – and then Jan. 6 happened, and it exploded,” says Mr. Jolly, who is considering a run for Florida’s governorship. “Our organic traffic into our website and social media accounts is up well over 1,000 percent.”

A new “Patriot” Party

Among many right-leaning populists, mounting frustration with the status quo has spurred the creation of a number of fledgling groups with variations on the name “MAGA Patriot Party.”

High school friends Brian Dow and Joe Faletra reconnected on Facebook last year after posting criticisms of the Republican Party. Both men voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and again in 2020 and they liked his “America First” agenda. But they also agreed his character was “not ideal.”

So late last year, after Mr. Trump lost the election, they founded The American Patriot Party of the United States, or TAPPUS for short. They rented office space in a strip mall in St. Petersburg, Florida, and created a Facebook group.

By the end of January, it had 46,000 members, with thousands more waiting to be approved.

The Facebook group wound up being taken down, because it “started morphing into an ‘I love the right’ page,” says Mr. Faletra, with members sharing misinformation about election fraud and violent conspiracy theories – something neither of the two founders say they supported.

But they remain undeterred in their efforts to forge a new political path forward, which they see as a repudiation of both major parties.

“This isn’t about being a Trump supporter or Biden supporter,” says Mr. Faletra. “I don’t think our party would support either of these politicians at this point.”

“If you look at the opportunities that exist in places where constituents are upset with their officials, that’s what we’re hoping to exploit,” adds Mr. Dow. “With the alignment today, if you are going to represent the Republican or Democratic Party, you are immediately ostracizing 50% of the population.”

The spoiler argument

Still, creating a real alternative to the two-party system in the U.S. strikes most experts as highly unlikely.

Without changing the current winner-take-all voting structure, forming a viable third party is “virtually impossible,” says Lee Drutman, a political scientist and author of the book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.”

Unlike countries with proportional representation, America’s system encourages party consolidation, since any one major party would gain a huge advantage if its opposition were to splinter. Voters, recalling that Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential bid likely cost President George H.W. Bush his reelection, and that votes in key states for the Green Party’s Jill Stein may have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, tend to consolidate themselves as well.

“The biggest challenge as an independent is what they call the spoiler argument,” says Neal Simon, who ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent in Maryland in 2018. “When I was campaigning, I would meet Democrats who would say, ‘I’d really like to support you, but I’m afraid if I support you it’s the equivalent of supporting a Republican,’ and then I’d meet Republicans who would say the same thing.”

To fix this, many electoral reform proponents suggest ranked-choice voting. Currently in place in Maine and just passed in Alaska via ballot measure, it allows voters to rank the candidates rather than just voting for one. If no candidate receives an outright majority of first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest is eliminated and the rankings are re-tallied, until someone reaches a majority. That way, voters who prefer a minor-party candidate don’t have to worry about “throwing away” their vote.

Minor-party candidates and independents (who aren’t affiliated with any party) often struggle with low polling numbers and have to work overtime to attract media attention – a chicken-and-egg problem. Many fail to clear the polling threshold required to participate in debates – which, of course, are an important tool to boost candidates’ visibility.

In the past, overcoming that challenge has often required significant personal wealth. In 1992, Mr. Perot circumvented the media exposure dilemma by buying expensive 30-minute political infomercials, which gave him the name recognition necessary to qualify for debates.

Then there are the logistical hurdles. Requirements to get on the ballot vary between states and races. Typically, it’s a combination of signatures and fees. Some states require party registration for voters to participate in primary elections. Minor parties can also lose state recognition for poor turnout, as the Constitution and Green parties did in North Carolina last month.

“Sure, it’s cool to start your own political party, but [third-party proponents] should also be supporting campaigns to change ballot-access laws,” such as the Fair Representation Act that was introduced in Congress last year, says Mr. Drutman.

Politics with respect

“We don’t appreciate what an anomaly the United States’ two-party system is,” he continues. “Prior to Jan. 6, I would have said I can’t envision [the creation of a successful third party]. But in the last month and a half … the number of conversations that I’ve had where people are like, ‘You know what, maybe it’s not so crazy,’” suggests that something might be changing, he says. “What we think is possible is what we decide is possible.”

Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Neal Simon ran for governor of Maryland. It was the U.S. Senate.

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