On the phone, just a couple of weeks after the midterm elections, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang sounded tired. The political party he started — the Forward Party — had less than a 30% success rate with its endorsements, but he was encouraged by even the party’s losses.
Yang, who was in Arizona at the time of the call, is looking to the Mountain West as a place where the party’s message of moderation, innovation and optimism might make inroads. He was enthusiastic about the candidacy of Utah’s Evan McMullin, who ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent against Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee. Even though McMullin lost, Yang congratulated him on Twitter for a “magnificent race.”
Yang was also encouraged by the vote in Nevada in favor of a ballot measure that would bring ranked choice voting to the state, one of his party’s seminal issues.
The Forward Party was launched in October 2021 by Yang with the hope that it would offer a viable alternative to voters dissatisfied with the status quo. He believes the party will appeal to America’s independent voters, with its focus on election reform and problem-solving instead of partisan sparring. But the party avoids taking positions on the cultural and economic issues that matter most to voters, which could make it difficult to grow beyond its current niche status.
But, even without a robust platform, Yang is betting that there is enough voter discontent to propel the party forward.
“Our vision is a country where our elected leaders are accountable to us, the American people,” Yang said in a phone call with the Deseret News. He said that for many Americans there doesn’t appear to be a connection between their quality of life and who they vote for at the ballot box, “which is why so many Americans are upset and increasingly pessimistic about our future.”
Though the Forward Party has yet to test the popularity of its platform by fielding a candidate of its own, the party endorsed a number of candidates in the midterms elections, with only 8 of 27 winning their respective races. The party endorsed more candidates in the Mountain West than it did in the rest of the country, with over half of the 27 candidates coming from just three states: Utah (8), Nevada (4) and Arizona (2).
The endorsees ranged from moderate Democrats and Republicans — like Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly who beat his Republican opponent to win reelection — to members of third parties and independents — like McMullin.
“This movement does have a natural home in the Mountain West,” Yang said, citing the relatively high percentage of independent voters in places like Arizona and Colorado, the surprising willingness of 43% of Utahn’s to support an independent Senate candidate, and, what he sees as the Forward Party’s biggest success in the midterms, the approval of “Question 3” in Nevada.
Choosing ranked choice
The ballot measure, which passed with 53% of the vote, would eliminate partisan primaries and replace them with one primary election ballot that would include all candidates. The top five vote-getters would move on to the general election where a winner would be decided through ranked choice voting.
This ballot measure is just the first step to amending the Nevada Constitution to allow open primaries and ranked choice voting for state and federal elections, not including presidential elections. This change, which Yang hopes to see implemented in states across the country, would replace partisan primary elections.
The ranked choice system described by “Question 3” would allow Nevadans to rank their preferred candidates one through five on a general election ballot — though a voter could rank only one or two candidates if they wanted to. If no candidate received more than 50% of first-preference votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is removed from the contest and the ballots he or she received would be redistributed to the other candidates according to the second preference listed on each ballot. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes.
The measure will need to be approved again in 2024 to ratify the amendment. Nevadans would then see changes to their elections starting in 2026.
According to its proponents, ranked-choice voting ensures that no one’s vote is “wasted” and creates incentives for candidates to hold moderate positions to try to appeal to as many people as possible. Its critics say ranked choice voting is confusing and can result in a candidate being elected who is preferred by only a small minority of voters. Ranked choice voting has been implemented statewide in Maine and Alaska, and is used in some local elections in California, Utah and elsewhere.
The Forward Party’s platform says the implementation of open primaries and ranked choice voting is an important step to putting the country on the right track. A focus on democratic processes rather than partisan policies is something that sets the Forward Party apart from other political parties.
The party’s platform avoids positions on cultural issues or economic policies and instead revolves around three “guiding principles” — free people, thriving communities and vibrant democracy — followed by three specific voting reforms — a transition to nonpartisan primaries, a shift to ranked choice voting and the creation of independent redistricting commissions to bring an end to gerrymandering.
But some have suggested that the party’s decision not to take official positions on most issues will prove to be its downfall, as it leaves voters in the dark about how Forward Party candidates will govern and provides little motivation to come out and vote.
In response to such criticism, Yang points to polls showing that dissatisfaction with the two major parties has produced a desire for a third option.
The Republican and Democratic parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of the country, with upwards of 80% of Americans saying the country is heading in the wrong direction. The share of Americans who hold unfavorable views of both parties is the highest in recent history, at 27%, compared to 6% in 1994. And the share of independents who hold unfavorable views of both parties is 44%.
The percentage of Americans who say a third major party is needed reached an all time high in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the capitol, at 62%. Though this number has since fallen back to the historical average for the last two decades, a majority of Americans still say the country would benefit from an alternative to the two major parties, including a record three-fourths of independent voters, who make up a plurality of the electorate.
Besides independent voters, the groups most likely to say a third option is needed are moderate Republicans and those under age 50.
But even if discontent with Republicans and Democrats is sky high, getting Americans to vote for another party will not be easy.
It’s hard being a third party in America
Third parties face obstacles because of the way the U.S. runs its elections, according to Bernard Tamas, professor of political science at Valdosta State University and author of “The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties.”
“The primary obstacle to third-party success in the U.S. is that we run elections through single-member districts,” Tamas said.
Because U.S. elections function on a “winner-takes-all” model, with one candidate declared the winner in each district, interest groups have an incentive to come together to form two competing parties, and voters have an incentive to vote for one of the two major parties for fear of “wasting” their vote on a smaller third party. This is not the case in countries where multiple candidates can win in each district according to the proportion of the vote they receive, Tamas said.
Though there are dozens of third parties at the state level in the U.S., there were only three recognized in more than 10 states as of December 2021: the Libertarian Party in 33 states, the Green Party in 17, and the Constitution Party in 12. None of these parties have won a presidential election and a third party representative in Congress is nearly unheard of.
But under some very specific circumstances third parties have succeeded in the past, according to Tamas. This has historically been the case during times of extreme polarization, when a third party has been able to take up an issue considered untouchable by either of the two major parties and then is able to peel away enough voters to force the major parties to reform or to replace one of them — like the Free Soil Party and the Republican Party which gained support through their opposition to slavery in the build up to the Civil War.
“Discontent with the major parties has always been the key to third-party success. A third party tends to tap into public outrage with one or both major parties in order to galvanize public support and fuel widespread protest voting,” Tamas said.
However, Tamas isn’t sure that the Forward Party’s focus on voting reform and centrist outcomes can galvanize enough supporters to threaten the two major parties.
“The problem with the current approach of the Forward Party appears to be that it is not adequately tapping into public discontent,” Tamas said. “Simply running on a platform that discredits partisanship is not in itself adequate, especially if past third-party success trends are any indication.”
Unsurprisingly, Yang disagrees, saying the Forward Party’s emphasis on systemic reforms is enough to attract voters and threaten the two major parties. “If you ask the average American ‘Is the current system working?’ They will say ‘No’.”
Despite the inherent difficulty of creating a viable and durable third party in America, Yang is optimistic. In the year since it was created, the Forward Party has gained tens of thousands of members and is the third largest party in the country in terms of financial resources, he said.
Though the party has not yet gained ballot access in any states, it is currently engaged in a process to do so in Nevada and Texas. Rules for gaining ballot access vary by state and sometimes require millions of signatures to be gathered in a short amount of time. Even so, the party aims to have ballot access in a majority of states by the end of next year, and in all 50 states by the 2024 election so that they can begin fielding candidates in local, state and national elections. The party has nearly 130 people in leadership positions in 35 states directing members to achieve these goals.
On July 27, the party announced its merger with the Renew America Movement, co-founded by former Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and the Serve America Movement, chaired by former Republican Congressman David Jolly. Both organizations were formed to counter the polarization and corruption they saw in the two major parties and are now combined with Yang’s organization under the name, “Forward.”
Some local officials have already voiced interest in declaring themselves Forward Party members once there is a vehicle for the party to participate in elections in their state. But at this point the party has no plans to nominate a presidential candidate in 2024, instead the focus will be on building a foundation of members and elected local officials, a Forward Party spokesperson said.
In the meantime, Yang continues to try to attract new party members.
“You don’t need to tear up your party registration to become part of the Forward movement, you can do it as a Democrat, or Republican, or independent, or any other party,” he said. “But if you want to see our country get on a better track and you know that the current system isn’t working, Forward is for you.”