Republican support for a third party is at an all-time high. But could it actually happen?
Those who support a third party include 70% of independents, 63% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats. In the recent past, election reforms have replaced efforts to create another party.
Americans, and Republicans in particular, say they’re ready for a new political party.
A Gallup poll released last month found 62% of Americans think a third party is needed because they believe the Democratic and Republican parties do such a poor job. It’s the highest that figure has been since Gallup began polling on the question in 2003.
Those who support a third party include 70% of independents and 46% of Democrats, but the increase in support this year is driven in large part by Republicans. The poll found 63% of Republicans support a third party, up from 40% in September.
“People are just looking for an alternative,” said Barry Short, Utah Libertarian Party chairman.
Short said he’s noticed the uptick in interest. His state party’s monthly fundraising so far this year has exceeded last year’s, and they’ve had a 20% increase in registered voters over the last 12 months. “We’re not out there looking for people, they’re coming to us,” he said.
Talk of a new party has come from both sides of the Republican spectrum in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s loss and the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Last month, more than 120 former Republican officials, including 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, met over Zoom to discuss forming a center-right anti-Trump party. And before Trump left office, he reportedly considered forming a “Patriot Party,” according to The Wall Street Journal, although he shot down that idea Sunday.
A third party would “divide our vote so that you can never win,” Trump said while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Worries over vote splitting and “spoiler” candidates are major roadblocks for third party candidates, which is why independent and third party supporters advocate for reforms like open primaries and independent redistricting.
In Congress, a group of Democratic lawmakers introduced the Fair Representation Act, which would require congressional districts to be drawn by independent commissions and would create multimember House districts in an effort to be more representative.
Another reform is rank-choice voting, in which voters rank their candidate preferences and their vote goes toward their second pick if their No. 1 choice is eliminated in a run-off. Ranked-choice voting is used in Alaska and Maine, and Virginia approved a measure to allow it in local elections last year. In 2018, Utah created a pilot program to allow certain municipal races to use ranked-choice voting.
“Around the country there are these reform ideas gaining some traction because they’re really popular with voters who want to be able to disrupt a system that they know is broken,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reform.
In Alaska, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is up for reelection in 2022, and Troiano said her state’s election reforms — it has an open primary in which all candidates regardless of party are on the same ballot and the top four candidates go through to the general election, and the state passed ranked-choice voting for state and federal candidates last year — make it easier for her to buck her party.
“She can campaign and make her case to all the voters that she represents not just the few who turn out in a primary election,” he said. “That means for the first time, acts of political courage can be potentially rewarded.”
Historically, America’s two-party duopoly has been difficult to break through. No third-party presidential candidate has received a double-digit percentage of the popular vote since 1992, when Ross Perot took 18.9% of the vote but received no electoral votes. Last year, Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen only received 1.1% of the vote. In Congress, there are just two lawmakers unaffiliated with the two major parties: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Angus King of Maine, who both caucus with Democrats.
Still, Troiano is optimistic and sees parallels between today and the Progressive Era, the period between the 1890s and early 20th century in which reforms like secret ballots, direct election of senators and women’s right to vote transformed American democracy.
“The Progressive Era occurred on the heels of an intense period of economic disruption and inequality and political corruption and dissatisfaction, a lot like the moment we’re living in today,” he said.
The Progressive Era was also when America’s most successful third-party candidate ran for president. In 1912, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ran again for his party’s nomination, but after he didn’t receive it, he launched his bid under the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election, but Roosevelt received 27.4% of the vote, ahead of Republican William Howard Taft.
While beating a major party in a national race as a third-party candidate was historic, Roosevelt and Taft’s combined vote counts would have been more than Wilson’s.