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Opinion: Is a third national political party possible?

As a founder of the Utah United Party has learned, becoming established takes time, patience and resources. The new Forward Party needs to do more than just appeal to the political center

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Andrew Yang, co-founder of the new Forward Party, speaks during his presidential campaign in 2020.

Andrew Yang presents a PowerPoint presentation during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Yang is co-chairman of the Forward Party, a new national third party hoping to attract disaffected voters.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

If your reaction to the nation’s newest third party, the Forward Party, was a sustained yawn, you’re probably not alone. 

The nation’s newest party was unveiled last week in a Washington Post op-ed by former Florida GOP Rep. David Jolly, former New Jersey GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

This isn’t the first attempt to harness what ought to be the enormous power of the political middle — people so tired of the politics of extremes that they are longing for an alternative. A recent Gallup Poll found 43% of Americans identifying as political independents, far more than the 27% each who identified as Republicans or Democrats. 

In theory, anyway, that ought to be enough to supply a victory by plurality to a candidate or two who espouses reasonable positions somewhere in the political middle. And yet, harnessing power from this group has proven to be about as easy (but not as entertaining) as harnessing electrical power by rubbing balloons on our heads.

To understand why, I called Richard Davis, founder of the United Utah Party, an in-state third party, and author of the book, “Beyond Donkeys and Elephants: Minor Political Parties in Contemporary American Politics.” 

Davis said polls show a majority of Utahns, like Americans generally, say they want a third, centrist party. 

“People will say, ‘Oh yeah I want a third party.’ But at the same time, they won’t vote for that party unless certain conditions exist,” he said. Namely, they must know the candidate well and feel that he or she has a chance to win. If not, a lot of people will feel that a vote for that person would be wasted, no matter what that candidate stands for. 

The “wasted vote” barrier can be hard to overcome. It takes time and patience.

Davis said the two major parties have enormous resources, including established nationwide networks of volunteers, fundraisers and affiliates. And they have tradition on their side. Voters may not be satisfied with a party’s platform, but if their parents, grandparents and other relatives are party members, it becomes harder to break ranks. 

Donald Trump illustrates this. A lot of mainstream Republicans spoke against him initially, then supported him because the party did. 

As Philip Bump, of the Washington Post, recently wrote, “Trump was not a strong Republican, not a party guy. He flipped between party identities at various points, just as he changed his positions on issues. Then, in 2016, he took over the GOP and remade it in his image. He understood a latent, underrepresented political force and paired it with the Republican Party’s infrastructure.”

None of this means it’s impossible for a third party to win. It’s happened before, in state races. Former wrestler Jesse Ventura’s election as governor of Minnesota on the Reform Party ticket comes to mind. 

Davis believes the best strategy is to begin at the local level and expand upward. He worries the Forward Party will make a mistake by starting at the top, with a presidential candidate. Which, ironically, would be backward.

One other thing. Don’t underestimate the need for patience. The United Utah Party has yet to win a race. But one of its candidates did gain 38% of the vote in a head-to-head race with a Republican, and the party fielded more candidates in Utah County in 2020 than did the Democrats.

“We’re still a long way from 50% plus one,” Davis said. “It’s taking longer to happen than I’d hoped. But you can see the progress here. It’s gradual.” 

So, does the Forward Party stands a chance? Even though I agree it’s needed, I wouldn’t bet on it. For one thing, the massive middle in the United States — that 43% — isn’t united. 

In the Washington Post op-ed, Forward Party founders did a good job outlining the problem. The nation’s politics is polarized, and in a dangerous, potentially violent, way. Americans are being given the choice between two extremes.

On gun control, it’s either confiscate every weapon and abolish the Second Amendment or eliminate all gun laws.

On climate change, it’s either destroy the economy as we know it or deny global warming exists.

On abortion, it’s allow it under all circumstances at any point in the pregnancy or make it a criminal offense.

But when you get all those independents together, it’s unclear where they land on these issues. As Bump noted, that same Gallup poll I referenced also found those independents almost equally divided over whether they “leaned” Democrat or Republican. That implies some big differences of opinion.

The nation’s ideals always have been borne on the shoulders of different races, religions and ideologies whose members often viewed each other with suspicion. A successful third party would need to chart a clear path, articulate it well and field candidates who could rally and unite people to their side. It’s not enough simply to invite people into a room and start a civil discussion.