Voters Want a Third Party

54% of Americans want an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. The question remains as to what kind of third party they want.

Via The HillPOLL: Majority of voters say they want a viable third party in American politics

Fifty-four percent of respondents in The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll said they’d like an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.

That number rose to 67 percent for self-identified independents. But even a plurality in the established parties — 49 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans — said they’d like another choice.

This is hardly a surprise.  First, the electorate is currently (to use the technical political science term) pissed off at mainline political parties at the moment.  Second, who doesn’t like more choice?

The thing that especially strikes me, however, is that if voters want third parties then they have to be willing to vote for them, which American voters have manifestly been unwilling to do.

Another thing that is noteworthy:  while votes frequently talk about how they want a third party, the question remains as to what kind of third party they want.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Steve,

    I’m sure you can speak to this better than I, but it’s always struck me that a huge reason for the disconnect between voter desires for a third party (as expressed in polls like this one) and reality can be explained by the difficulties that third parties have in competing with the Big Two. Ballot access rules are the biggest factor, of course, but there are plenty of other means by which the Republicans and Democrats have created electoral rules that help to perpetuate their place at the top of a two-party system.

  2. There are a number of structural advantages that the Big Two have in the system, without a doubt. I would state that the ballot access is not as determinative as many think that it is. The fundamental problem is lack of voter support. Even if I live in a state with onerous signature requirements for getting on the ballot, if I actually have support in the electorate, I can get the signatures. (Not, btw, that I think onerous signature requirements are a good thing).

    The primary process also means that candidates somewhat out of the mainstream (like, say, the Pauls) have every incentive to compete within the Big Two system instead of striking out down the third party route.

    Indeed, I think that the primary system coupled with our single member district, plurality-winner based system equals the Big Two for as far as the eye can see.

  3. john personna says:

    Why would they want another Party? Parties suck.

  4. john personna says:

    Steven, what is the trend on “open primaries?”

  5. If by “open primary” you mean a situation in which voters do not register with a given party and pick the ballot they prefer (D or R) on primary day, they have been (if memory serves) the majority of states uses them.

    I would further say this: I would argue that the type of primary really doesn’t matter, as regardless of the exact process it still creates a gateway into the Big Two which is far more attractive if a given candidate can make it work for them than going the third party route.

  6. john personna says:

    Ah, wikipedia explains it to me:

    An open primary is a primary election that does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for partisan candidates. In a traditional open primary, voters may select one party’s ballot and vote for that party’s nomination. As in a closed primary, the highest voted candidate in each party then proceeds to the runoff election. In a nonpartisan blanket primary, all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest voted candidates proceed to the runoff, regardless of party affiliation.

    What I want is a nonpartisan blanket primary.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Sheesh. Three? I’d be happy with two.

  8. What I want is a nonpartisan blanket primary.

    Those were basically put to bed (pun intended, sorry) in California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000).

    But, really, even the blanket primary doesn’t ultimately do all that much for the prospects of third party candidates in the general election.

    And that Wikipedia entry is wrong insofar as not all states have a runoff provision for primaries (for example, AZ, IIRC).

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    They just won’t vote for one when it gets down to the wire.

  10. john personna says:

    Well, if the blanket primary were possible, it would matter less about the 3rd parties. They might make it, but in the meantime final contenders (the top two) would be more democratically determined (and probably more moderate).

  11. Anon says:

    Hm…would the effect be the same regardless of what kind of 3rd party was created. Suppose the Sarah Palin party was created. Would this then push Republicans more to the center? Suppose the Michael Moore party was created. Would this then push Democrats more to the center?

    Would ultimately the effect be to have a centrist party, and then two more extreme parties on the left and right?

  12. @John:

    I think you are thinking of the so-called “jungle primary” system that they used to use in LA or the “Top Two” system (which is similar) that is being used in CA and I think Washington.

  13. James Joyner says:

    I think wanting an alternative to the current parties is somewhat different than wanting a particular alternative party. Hell, *I’d* like an alternative. But what people want is a party with candidates who think *just like them.* 308 million parties might be hard to pull off.

    It’s relatively easy to get something like the Tea Party or the Perot party going. You can be against the system and the current chicanery. It’s much harder to get a coherent alternative program that garners majority support.

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    308 million parties might be hard to pull off

    That reminds me of a description I heard years ago of modern political parties in California: two people and a television set.

  15. Tano says:

    Do y’all think that an instant run-off system is just too complicated for little American minds to deal with?

    Because it does seem to solve lots of the problems mentioned here. It allows third parties to flourish without the fear that by voting for one you are paving the way for your least favorite major party to end up winning. It would also allow a single mass election (although it need not work this way) ending the need for primaries – just let everyone one run at once, and allow the voters to rank their choices, and a single winner will emerge, and will have earned a majority vote.

  16. Nightrider says:

    I’m a skeptic. but just for kicks it would be fun to talk about what this third party would stand for. I am presuming it would have to aim its bullseye for the middle on at least many issues.

    Now if the middle is, let’s go to Washington and stop blaming other people and get sh*# done, I’m all for it. The problem is, we don’t even need a third party for that, the two parties we have could do that reasonably well, if we, the voters, stopped rewarding hyperpartianship over results. Maybe O’Donnell is right. She’s us. And that’s a problem.

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Maybe O’Donnell is right. She’s us. And that’s a problem.”

    But she’s not “us” which is why she’s going to crash and burn. She’s a vociferous, rather incoherent, segment on the far right. The problem wth all this inchoate yearning is that it ignores the nature of governance which is a complicated process characterised by confusion, conflict, compromise and human foibles. The nature of housing finance is unchanged whether you’re a donkey or an elephant.

  18. The Q says:

    I have given this much thought and have postulated a path for a third party to slowly gain influence and over time, challenge the corrupt dems and repubs. Any comments would be much appreciated.

    It seems to me that the soft underbelly of electoral politics for a third party has to be the Senate.

    This is where a third party must start.

    The reasons are clear:

    First, a small group of 4 to 6 3rd party senators can hold virtually all members hostage in this chamber since the parties are so evenly divided and highly partisan.

    Second, the terms are for 6 years, so the duration of power is much longer than other elective offices and allows for greater legitimacy and escape from costly, constant re-election campaigns a la house members.

    Third, highly visible, qualified charismatic candidates who are turned off by the rigid hierarchy of party politics can be culled and recruited state by state . Witness the explosion this year of “fringe” or “tea party” candidates (we all know who they are) who successfully prevailed against the conventional party wisdom.

    Fourth, stirring grass roots interest and funding from across the nation, as opposed to local support, is much easier for a high visibility Senate campaign.

    Fifth, (because as mentioned above) placing candidates and parties on state ballots can be problematic since electoral procedures mitigate the attempts, limiting and focusing resources on those states which offer a reasonable chance of success makes logistical and logical sense.

    For example, one must pick states which have a maverick streak in them and weak party affiliations. California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada….off the top of my head.

    California with Arnold, S.I Hayakawa, Minnesota with Jesse Ventura and Al Franken show that neophyte candidates can have appeal.

    Also, another crucial aspect underpinning the success of a 3rd party is that it has to be issues oriented and not a cult of personality.

    Too often in the past, 3rd parties have been candidate driven (Perot, John Anderson) and not party driven, hence those parties rise and fall with the personalities which run.

    In sum, the senate is the strategy….just a few members there and you can gain attention, influence, credibility and momentum.

    Otherwise, a third party may elect one or two house members without clout and little prospects.

  19. Nightrider says:

    >>>>“Maybe O’Donnell is right. She’s us. And that’s a problem.” But she’s not “us” which is why she’s going to crash and burn. <<<<<

    O'Donnell certainly isn't me either — I believe in actual science, pay my taxes, and like to . . oh, never mind. Yes, she will crash and burn in Delaware, a state with some sense. But nationally, this is the same country that re-elected Bush in 2004 knowing what an abysmal President he was.

    Good, thoughts, The Q. But what agenda would this party pursue as their core raison d'etre?

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    ‘But nationally, this is the same country that re-elected Bush in 2004 knowing what an abysmal President he was.”

    Actually rather less so generationally and ethnically. And destined to become progressively less so over the next 50 years.