Dude, where’s my party? Voters have alternatives amid Republican, Democrat discord

Tired of the Republican Party? Fed up with the Democrats? Don’t despair. There are dozens of political parties out there begging for your attention, including many you probably never knew existed.

At a time of increasing dissatisfaction with the major parties, voters appear to be shopping for alternatives, both nationally and on the state level.

People join third parties for a variety of reasons. Some are dissatisfied with the parties in power. Others are looking for an organization that better represents their personal political philosophies. Some want to push a single issue.

Regardless of the reason, political parties primarily exist to get candidates elected who share ideological and policy goals. On that front, nontraditional parties continue to be crushed by red and blue behemoths.

The long-established Libertarian, Green and Constitution parties are well known. In fact, Libertarian Gary Johnson did better in 2016 than any third-party presidential candidate since Ross Perot under the Reform Party 20 years earlier. State-level minor party candidates have also made inroads in some states, though it hasn’t necessarily resulted in election wins.

But there is also a host of more obscure or single-issue parties on the menu of American politics.

Take the Transhumanist Party. Trans what? Transhumanist. 

The party, according to its website, supports significant life extension achieved through the progress of science and technology; a cultural, societal, and political atmosphere informed and animated by reason, science, and secular values; and efforts to use science, technology, and rational discourse to reduce and eliminate various existential risks to the human species.

Then there’s the United States Pirate Party. It has nothing to do with Capt. Jack Sparrow or that faux holiday in September where people say “argh” or “matey.” It does, however, have something to do with piracy. The Pirate Party aims to reform intellectual property laws, foster true governmental transparency, and protect privacy and civil liberties.

No political party outside of the Democrats and Republicans can currently claim a member of Congress, though there are two independents in the U.S. Senate, both of whom caucus with the Democrats.

Donald Trump’s influence

Talk of a third major political party heated up recently among some prominent conservatives who are disillusioned with the fractured GOP, including 2016 independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, Should they form a new party, the odds of putting someone in office are decidedly against them.

President Joe Biden, left, bested President Donald Trump in November 2020.
President Joe Biden, left, bested President Donald Trump in November 2020. Has the political landscape changed enough to offer other party choices? | Patrick Semansky and Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

A Gallup poll released in February found support for a third political party in the United States at a high point. The survey found 62% of adults say the “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”

The poll was conducted before news reports that dozens of government officials in prior Republican administrations were discussing an anti-Donald Trump third political party, according to Gallup.

Some Republican voters in Utah are concerned about Trump’s influence in the GOP, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

The U.S. Capitol insurrection and, to a lesser extent, the booing of Sen. Mitt Romney at the Utah GOP convention, have raised worries about where the party is headed and what it stands for, he said. The events of the Trump era has resulted in young Utahns being less attached to the Republican Party, he said.

“Whether that decreased willingness to identify with the Republican Party benefits third parties is an open question,” Karpowitz said.

Nontraditional parties might be more attractive to some who are not ready to become Democrats, but most voters care about electability, and that’s where third parties struggle, he said.

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Only one third-party candidate, William Carney, has won a U.S. House election since 1960. New Yorkers voted Carney in as a member of the Conservative Party of New York State in 1979. He switched to the Republican Party in 1985.

Another Conservative Party candidate in New York, James Buckley, served one term in the U.S. Senate before losing reelection as a Republican in 1977. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman won reelection in a party created by his supporters, Connecticut for Lieberman, after losing the 2006 Democratic nomination.

State of the third party

The success rate in the modern era has not been good on a national level for third-party candidates.

But what about on a state level?

The track record isn’t good there either, with one notable exception.

A Deseret News review of 50 state legislatures showed only four current officeholders from outside the two major parties — a Libertarian in Wyoming, a Libertarian in Maine who switched from the GOP after being elected, a Working Families Party member in New York and member of the Independence Party of New York. There are also a few independents here and there.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is listed as a “Progressive endorsed independent.”
Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came to This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, March 18, 2016. | Chris Samuels, Chris Samuels, Deseret News

But the Vermont General Assembly has more members from a minor party than the rest of the statehouses combined.

The Vermont Progressive Party is perhaps the most effective nontraditional party in the country.

Seven members of the Vermont House of Representatives and two state senators are Progressives. The Vermont House formally recognizes the Progressive caucus alongside the Democrats and Republicans.

In addition, the party holds a plurality on the 12-member Burlington City Council, with six members. (Four Democrats and two independents maintain the other seats). Progressives also held the mayor’s office for nearly 30 years.

“We’ve been successful because we primarily focus on local and legislative races,” said Josh Wronski, Vermont Progressive Party executive director.

Though it homes in on local races, the Progressive Party does claim a big name: Bernie Sanders. He’s listed as a “Progressive endorsed independent” on the party’s website.

“Work closely with him,” Wronski said. “He accepts our nomination and politely chooses to run as an independent.”

The Vermont Progressive Party also does well partly because of a thing called fusion voting. The practice gives candidates the ability to run on multiple party tickets. The parties are listed separately on the ballot but votes for the candidate are pooled. Only eight states in the country allow electoral fusion or multi-party nominations.

Progressives in the Vermont legislature are officially listed as Progressive/Democrat. Another seven members are listed as Democrat/Progressive.

Wronski said fusion voting has been a good way for the party to reach voters who have the perception that there are only Democrats and Republicans.

“It has been a really good way to break through that and say we’re willing to work with not necessarily the Democratic establishment leaders but with Democratic voters who haven’t been exposed to the kind of work we’re doing,” he said. “That has absolutely been effective.”

Beyond donkeys and elephants

In Utah, Jim Bennett, the son of the late Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, and BYU political science professor Richard Davis, a Democrat, grew weary of extreme views co-opting their parties. They and other disaffected Republicans and Democrats formed the United Utah Party in 2017 to carve out a middle ground in the state.

Richard Davis, United Utah Party.
Richard Davis, chairman of United Utah Party. | Photo provided by Richard Davis.

As of this month, the party had only 2,501 registered members, according to the Utah elections office. Registered Republicans number more than 909,000, and Democrats 270,000 but there are 556,000 unaffiliated voters in the state.

“We’ve got a niche here that we’ve established,” said Davis, who served two terms as the centrist party’s chairman. His involvement in the fledgling party spurred him to look deeper into third parties resulting in a book last year titled “Beyond Donkeys and Elephants: Minor Political Parties in Contemporary American Politics.”

A United Utah candidate has yet to win an election. Party candidates captured a slightly smaller percentage of the overall vote in the state in 2020 compared to 2018, as the COVID-19 pandemic hampered their campaign efforts.

While the percentage was smaller, the number of votes cast for United Utah hopefuls was up last year, including more than 173,000 for its candidate for state auditor.

“We saw that as progress given the fact that we’re still not known,” Davis said.

Davis said he’d like to have fusion voting in Utah to help get more moderate candidates elected to office rather than those who appeal to the more extreme Republican and Democratic bases.

“In states where it’s used, third parties typically do better,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, there’s not much encouragement on the part of Republicans and Democrats to do that.”

United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett.
Jim Bennett represented the United Utah Party in the 3rd Congressional District in 2017. He talks here on the campaign trail with Jason Sokoloff in Spanish Fork. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Davis wonders if former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, a conservative Democrat, would have benefitted from nominations in the Democratic and United Utah parties. He also thinks GOP Sen. Mitt Romney could have a “sort of hedge” with a United Utah nomination if he were to lose a Republican primary.

Fusion voting has popped up in the Utah Legislature a couple of times in the past, but never went anywhere, said Justin Lee, state elections director.

While the United Utah Party often inserts itself in debates on the issues of the day, its voice, like most third parties, goes largely ignored.

“Too often the media can overlook the efforts of parties like us,” Wronksi said.

For example, in 2008 the Vermont Progressive Party candidate for governor finished second in a three-way race. But network news outlets listed him as “other” next to the Democrat and the Republican even though he bested one of the major party candidates.

Some minor parties have tried to find strength in numbers. At least nine independent parties scattered across the country merged to form the Alliance Party over the past three years. Davis said the United Utah Party declined to join because it didn’t care for the new party’s presidential nominee and it prefers to concentrate its efforts on state and local races.

A third party’s existence can also be tenuous. Many states require political parties to win a certain percentage of the overall vote in an election to maintain status as a recognized party. The Moderate Party in Rhode Island failed to do so in 2019, leaving officials to notify about 4,000 registered party members that they were now unaffiliated.

And whether you call them third parties, nontraditional parties or minor parties, not everything has to be red or blue.

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