Every few months or so, a major publication will run a piece arguing that the real fix for what ails our political system is a third-party movement of some kind. No third-party presidential candidate has won more than a quarter of the popular vote in over a century. This would be a significant hurdle for these arguments were there an expectation from editors that those advancing them grapple seriously with historical evidence or elementary political science. Fortunately for those writers, you can publish quite a lot of political commentary without being expected to demonstrate even a modicum of common sense. One of the more recent and more notable proposals for a third party was advanced by Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in April 2016 that political polarization has America’s Average Joes clamoring for an “Innovation Party” helmed by Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg or perhaps some unnamed figure from the military — really anyone capable of deploying “muscular language” on terrorism, the “Internet revolution,” and proposals like a “National App” promoting volunteerism to win over blue-collar voters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. No, I don’t get it either.
Of course, there’s no shortage of wealthy people around willing to bankroll this kind of thing. A $35 million third-party effort by Peter Ackerman and Kahlil Byrd called Americans Elect in 2012 elected no one; this followed a similarly pathetic project called Unity 08 during the previous election. In 2011, Americans Elect was the subject of a laudatory column in the New York Times called “Make Way for the Radical Center” by Tom Friedman who marveled that the project had attracted “some serious hedge-fund money.” “Write it down: Americans Elect,” he told readers. “What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two party duopoly that has dominated American political life.” Seven years later, the powers that be in the American duopoly are still at it. Worse still, so is Tom Friedman.
The new angle in these proposals is that the rise of Donald Trump has upset enough conservatives that a mass breakaway from the Republican Party for a third-party effort might be possible. This was the impetus behind bar trivia answer Evan McMullin’s run in 2016. A year into the Trump presidency, conservatives are still giving this serious thought, as evidenced by a new proposal advanced today in, naturally, the New York Times. The op-ed, by Republican strategist Juleanna Glover, is titled “Are Republicans Ready for a Third Party?” It begins with another rhetorical question:
Want to know what Republicans are thinking about in the days leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address to a Republican-controlled Congress? A new party.
At think-tank conference tables, over coffee at the Senate Chef and at the incessant book parties on the Washington social circuit, disaffected Republicans are wondering whether, if they came up with a truly great candidate, they could jump-start a new party, just as the original Republicans did in the 1850s.
Glover goes on to write that there are “many Republicans wary of a second term for Mr. Trump.” This is, straightforwardly, false. The most recent Gallup poll shows that after a year in office, 87 percent of Republicans approve of the president, a negligible dip from the 89 percent support he enjoyed the week of the inauguration. A lot of violence to English has been done in the past few years of American politics, but the word “many” still means precisely the opposite of 13 or so percent of a group. As things stand now, not only “many,” but the vast majority of Republicans would vote for a second Trump term without a moment’s hesitation. Glover moves on from this assertion to take on skeptics who point out the difficulty that even popular independent and third-party candidates have making headway in the Electoral College system. Presidential candidates need 270 college votes to win. George Wallace, the last third-party candidate to win any, won 46 in 1968. “That doesn’t mean it would be impossible,” Glover says:
Do the math. Tally the votes cast in states in which the number of Republicans and Democrats is roughly equal, especially those that have shown movement one way or the other in recent elections, along with traditional battleground states. There are some significant caches of votes: Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana–it’s not hard to get to 268. Add the three votes from Maine, with its history of supporting third-party candidates, and the total is 271 electoral college votes.
Glover is of course correct that 268 + 3 = 271 and that getting within shooting distance of 270 in the first place requires winning in—where else?—competitive states. Still, any third-party candidate would obviously be joined in pursuing this innovative strategy by the campaign apparatuses of the Democratic and Republican parties. Given their financial and organizational advantages and the millions of voters already familiar with and committed to them, there is no real reason to believe that the two parties will not continue to crush third-party candidates for the foreseeable future as they have for well over a hundred years, particularly if a third-party movement is centered around the kinds of candidates Glover suggests. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. Private equity financier David Rubenstein. IBM’s Ginni Rometti. Alternatively, she recommends asking neighbors “whether the idea of a Joe Biden-Ben Sasse independent ticket is appealing–with Mr. Biden pledging to serve only four years (to address concerns about his age).” Perhaps your neighbors would know better than mine what coherent conservative, yet anti-Trump agenda the former Democratic vice president and a senator who has voted with Trump 90 percent of the time could offer. A hodgepodge of other “moderate” Republicans are also thrown in the mix along with Oprah, whose conservative credentials are evidently sterling. Really, Glover’s thinking small. Why not a unity ticket of Hillary Clinton, Jeff Flake, and the CEO of Panera Bread promising to govern as a triumvirate?
As is common with these proposals a specific candidate or a specific policy program isn’t really the point. The idea is that American voters are, deep down, sick of polarization and share the views of centrists who write op-eds for the New York Times about what the excesses of our current political system are. They are thus willing, in theory, to run to anyone promising deliverance from both. Never mind that American voters have supported and continue to support politicians driving that polarization in the first place. To be fair, there’s a lot of polling showing that Americans are, on paper, both supportive of a potential third party and frustrated with partisan gridlock in Washington. But this has never translated into mass anti-duopoly rebellion at the voting booth. It’s not likely to now, even as many voters seethe about the doings of political elites. Much of that seething stems from a suspicion that those elites aren’t terribly smart. Third-party chatter is one bit of evidence suggesting voters aren’t wrong about that.