Americans split about evenly on the question of whether the country needs a third major political party, but most -- more than two-thirds -- are open to supporting a qualified independent candidate, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Some 48 percent think there is a need for a third way in party politics, and just as many, 49 percent, say not so. Overall, 22 percent say they would definitely vote for a third party candidate with whom they agreed on most issues; another 46 percent would at least consider it. Fewer than three in 10 would flatly rule it out.

Among the half the country who says there is a need for an alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans, nearly all would at least consider actually voting for a qualified third-party candidate. Among those who don’t see the need, nearly half wouldn’t even consider voting that way if given the opportunity.

Demand for a third party is naturally highest among those who do not identify with either the Republicans or Democrats. Just over six in 10 independents see a need for a third party; nearly as many Democrats and Republicans disagree.

Liberals are more apt than conservatives to want a third party to join the competition (60 to 39 percent).

While the poll didn’t ask about specific third party choices, by a 2 to 1 margin, Republicans who pick Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Texas) as a first or second choice candidate for the GOP nomination say there is a need for a third party. Majorities of supporters of other GOP candidates mostly reject the idea. More than three-quarters of Paul’s supporters say they would vote for a third party candidate who syncs up with them on the issues.

A December Post-ABC poll found that a general election with Paul on the ballot as a third party could doom GOP prospects for a 2012 victory. Paul has not indicated that he would pursue a third party run if he doesn’t win the GOP nomination.

More from the Post polling team

Sign up for Post polling e-mails

Follow Post polling on Twitter

Like Post Politics on Facebook