Fewer than half of all Americans express favorable opinions of the country’s two major political parties, with majorities across the board supporting the idea of an independent challenger in the upcoming presidential election, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Some 48 percent rate the Democratic Party favorably, marking a big drop from the lead-up to President Obama’s election and the party’s first sub-50-percent read in polling since 1984. At the same time, public views of the Republican Party continue to be even more negative: 53 percent see the Republican Party unfavorably; 40 percent favorably.

Independent voters are broadly critical of the two sides: 55 percent have unfavorable views of the Democrats and Republicans alike. Again, with a notable fall-off for Democrats from August 2008 when 51 percent of independent voters had positive views of the party, 41 percent negative ones.

More broadly, the parties’ current ratings are close to their all-time lows. The 40 percent rating for the GOP is down 11 percentage points from March 2006, when the party controlled both the White House and Congress. The low point for the party came in late 1998, just after the Republican House voted to impeach President Clinton.

What results from sliding views of the parties is a clear preference from those in the political middle for a third option in the 2012 presidential election: fully 74 percent of independent voters favor the idea of an independent candidacy. But majorities of both Republicans and Democrats also back the concept, at least in principle.

Overall, big majorities of whites — across party lines — support the idea of a third party challenger, but African Americans and Hispanics are evenly divided on the question.

African Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic and hold broadly positive views of the Democratic Party (74 percent favorable) and negative ones of the GOP (75 percent unfavorable, including 58 percent “strongly” so).

Hispanics, however, are more evenly divided, representing an opportunity for the Republicans eager to appeal to the fast-growing Latino electorate. In this poll, 40 percent of Hispanics express favorable views of the GOP; 45 percent unfavorable ones.

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