IN A VOICE VOTE IN MAY, REPUBLICANS stripped the important role of House Republican Conference leader from Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, following her outspoken repudiation of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. In so doing, the GOP continues to make it abundantly clear for the foreseeable future it is the party of Trump.
Which raises a question: Might Cheney, along with other prominent Republicans on the outs with the party because they have withheld fealty to the former president, mount their next election bids as independents—or even form a third party?
The conventional wisdom says no, given the poor showings most independent candidates have historically turned in against the combined might of the two major parties. On the other hand, these are unconventional times in politics, and for the first time in decades the prospects for a third party may be better than poor.
At the moment, those prospects largely depend on Joe Biden. He’s popular right now, at least by recent presidential standards. And it’s no wonder: The swift vaccine rollout is taming the pandemic, a big stimulus package has provided economic help, and a massive infrastructure program that could further prop up the economy is in the works.
What about 2024? In his first press conference on March 25, Biden said it was his “expectation” to run but conceded there was some uncertainty. He’ll be 82 years old, nine years older than Ronald Reagan was when reelected. Before then, Biden will have to navigate the midterm elections and, perhaps, two years of a hostile Congress. By then, Democrats may well be clamoring to give Vice President Kamala Harris or another more progressive and youthful candidate a shot at leading the party and the country.
That’s where the third-party possibilities get interesting. If the Democrats do go with a progressive, and if Trump or someone in his mold is the Republican candidate, voters will face one of the starkest electoral choices in American history: lurch further to the left than the nation has ever gone before or further to the right.
Evidence suggests that most voters aren’t interested in either option, or in the continuing cycles of outrage and conflict either of these extremes would likely entail. “The two major parties are more extreme than ever before,” says David Shor, head of data science with progressive nonprofit OpenLabs and a leading Democratic polling analyst. “At the same time, the percentage of people dissatisfied with the system is larger than ever.”
While Biden’s early tentative successes have for the moment subdued the polarization that was laid bare in the previous administration, most observers expect dissatisfaction with the two major parties to come roaring back to the surface soon— perhaps in the coming months as campaigning starts in earnest for the midterm elections—and continue right through to 2024.
A third party could be the way out. Many political observers seem to think so. In the past year there has been more talk of the need for a new centrist political party than there has been in over a century. Several political organizations have sprung up to create or support new alternatives to the two major parties, and some are starting to gain traction. “Since the January 6 attack on the capitol, unsolicited traffic to our website is up 10,000 percent compared a year ago, and donations are up 2,000 percent,” says David Jolly, a former Republican U.S. Congressman from Florida and now executive chairman of the Serve America Movement, an independent party formed in 2017. “We haven’t seen this sort of movement toward a new party in years.”
A third-party president in 2024 is not the most likely outcome, but neither is it far-fetched.
THERE IS REASON TO THINK THAT things might be different in 2024. For starters, record numbers of voters say they want a third party, including 46 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of independents, according to a Gallup poll in early February. Only a third of Americans say the two major parties adequately represent the public, a historically low number for the poll. Meanwhile, half of voters currently say they are independents, a record high.
Because the vast majority of independents tend to drift toward one of the two major parties as election day approaches, most of the votes for a third-party candidate would have to be diverted from one or both of those parties. Few people question that the Republican party, at least, is currently primed to leak a substantial fraction of its once-dependable voters. State voter records indicate that in the weeks following the January attack on the Capitol more than 100,000 registered Republicans took the trouble to delist themselves from the party’s rolls.
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