Third parties are having a moment. A recent Gallup poll of Americans found that 62 percent of respondents said that the Democratic and Republican parties did not do an adequate job of representing the American people and did such a poor job that a third party was needed in America. While this represents an all-time high for the Gallup poll, it was not completely out of step with recent history. Gallup has measured support for a third party above 50 percent for most of the last decade.
Why has support for a third party grown recently? In the Gallup poll, it has been driven primarily by Republicans. In the past few months, support for a third party among Republicans has jumped from 40 percent to 63 percent. That is an incredible swing which is almost entirely attributable to former President Trump. While Republicans are generally in favor of President Trump, there is significant disagreement over whether he should remain the leader of the Republican Party (68 favor/31 disfavor). Neither side appears ready to give in to the other. There have been multiple reports since November that both Pro-Trump and Never-Trump Republican groups have considered forming a third party by 2024.
Historically, the United States has always had a two-party system. While those parties have evolved and changed, the two-party system has remained constant. While it is an over-simplification, the main reason the United States has two dominant political parties is because of our system of elections. In the United States we have winner-take-all elections. That means that when we have an election, the winner gets all the power. Winner-take-all elections incentivizes disparate groups to work together in large coalitions. One reason that the Republican and Democratic Parties have dissatisfied members is that they are both extremely large coalitions that must try and pursue policies that keep their members happy enough to stay. While this system does not make anyone completely happy, it endures because the alternative is potentially worse.
If the Republican Party did split, even for a single election, that would have potentially devastating consequences for their chances of success. Let us assume that the party split with 2/3rd following Trump and 1/3rd following some non-Trump alternative. I ran the math so you would not have to. Holding the 2020 vote constant but giving 1/3 of his vote to a third-party candidate in each state means that Trump would lose the Electoral College 472-66. That would be one of the largest electoral defeats in United States history and the worst since 1984. This is true in the opposite direction as well. If Trump were to create a third-party and leave behind a substantial remnant of the party, he will not just lose, he will lose badly.
This has historical precedent. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside and William Howard Taft was elected president. By 1912 Roosevelt had become upset with Taft’s actions as president and ran again as a third-party candidate. This action split the Republican vote and led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to the presidency. To give you an idea of how improbable Wilson’s win was consider this fact: Wilson was one of only two Democrats to be elected president between the Civil War and 1932, a period of 72 years. Wilson won only 41 percent of the popular vote but got over 80 percent of the votes in the Electoral College.
That does not mean that you should never vote third-party. A third party vote can represent a rejection of the major party candidates. It can send a signal to the party that an important subsection of voters rejects the direction of the party. No political party should enjoy your undying allegiance. If you do not support their candidate, voting third party is a powerful rejection of the status quo. In an era of increasing partisan polarization where every single election becomes “the most important election of our lifetimes” it remains to be seen if a sufficiently large group of Americans would be willing to do that. In the meantime, you should be aware that while there are important and valuable reasons to vote third-party. You should be prepared to take the moral victories when they come because the electoral victories are going to be rare.
David Searcy has degrees in political science and lives in Lawton.