Is it time for a third party in the US?

By Barbara Gutierrez

Is it time for a third party in the US?

By Barbara Gutierrez
Deep polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties has made some voters believe that it is time for a strong third party to emerge.

Whether the issue is immigration, abortion, education, or race, it appears many Democrats and Republicans are at the opposite side of each other on the political spectrum.

Polarization by conservatives and liberals of either party has increased steadily over the past few decades in the U.S., according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. In each party, the share of those with “a highly negative view” of the other party has more than doubled since 1994.

These deep divides make many voters believe that it is time for a third party to emerge. A recent poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal showed that almost 40 percent of Americans believe a third party is needed to fix a much-fractured political system.

“I think the country is experiencing extremely high levels of partisanship and I think the leaders and the members of the parties have high levels of antagonism toward the members of the opposite parties,” said Gregory Koger, professor of political science in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences.

But Koger warns that a third party is not an easy answer.

“We have an electoral system that rewards two major parties at the local level because the state is divided up into single member districts and then we have two senate seats and a governor seat that is statewide,” said Koger.

As a result, when elections come around voters—including those who are interested in a third party—are more likely to support one of the two likely to win, he said.

Third party candidates, however, can have an impact on an election and can change the national discourse. Ross Perot, the billionaire from Texas who recently died, is a good example. In 1992, he waged a very strong campaign against Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. Although Perot only gathered 18 percent of the popular vote, he did influence the election platforms by highlighting issues that the two other parties had ignored but then used to scoop up the dissatisfied Perot voters. Those issues were: the conversation around foreign trade and his promotion of balancing the national budget.

But many voters view third party candidates with skepticism because they can be a spoiler in an election by drawing away votes from the leading candidates. When Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, ran in the Presidential campaign of 2000 against Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush, Democrats were angry with Nader for syphoning votes from Gore that would have helped him win the election, Koger said.

One way third parties can influence an election is by replacing one of the two major parties, said Koger. This happened in the early years of the Republic. The first parties were the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. The Federalists disappeared and the Republicans eventually evolved into the current Democratic Party.

The Whig Party arose around the 1830s and lasted for about 20 years until replaced by the American Party, which only lasted around six years, only to be replaced by the Republican Party of President Abraham Lincoln.       

“There is always a chance that could happen in our lifetime,” said Koger.

From a legal perspective, it would not be a very difficult task for a third party to come together.

There have always been and are now numerous “third parties” in the United States, said Frances Hill, professor of law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar for the Profession in the School of Law.

“The current issue is whether any political party will be able to attract sufficient public support that its electoral success would cause a realignment of political parties involving the replacement of one or both of the current major parties,” she said. 

A realignment of parties involves one or more new coalitions of voters and thereby changes the alignment of political contestation. New parties form all the time. 

Financing the new party is regulated by federal and state election law. Political parties are largely, but not entirely, exempt from taxation, under the Internal Revenue Code.  Ballot access for candidates is a matter of state law, Hill said.