Kristen Soltis Anderson is a Republican pollster and columnist at The Washington Examiner.
As I travel around the country speaking to groups of business executives about public opinion and U.S. politics, I often pose that question to the audience. People look around the room, nodding approvingly, feeling validated that their worldview is shared by so many of their peers. Then I deliver the bad news. They are very much alone. And the United States already got the most viable version of a third-party candidate: He just happened to run as a Republican. His name is Donald Trump.
The United States’ strong two-party system is an oddity. Unlike the parliamentary systems in other democratic countries, where a multitude of parties present competing worldviews and build coalitions, the Democratic and Republican parties must serve as preexisting coalitions of left and right. Someone who might have fit in nicely as a member of, say, Germany’s Free Democratic Party, a socially liberal free-market party that won about 11 percent of the vote in the 2017 German elections, may find themselves ill-served by both their choices here in the United States but with no real viable alternatives.
The result is persistent speculation, often from those same business leaders who feel their brand of classical liberalism is absent from our political scene, about a viable third-party or independent candidacy. A look at the data suggests that they should be careful what they wish for.
In 2018, Lee Drutman, William A. Galston and Tod Lindberg released a paper titled “Spoiler Alert: Why Americans’ Desires for a Third Party Are Unlikely To Come True,” outlining the views of the large number of Americans who say they are open to a third party. While 68 percent of Americans they’d like a third party, there is no consensus around what that third party ought to be.
Among those wanting a third party, they find that about 4 in 10 opt for something further out on the fringes, either more conservative or more liberal than the Republican or Democratic parties, respectively. Only about a third yearn for something in between.
And then, of course, there’s the trouble of what something in between would even look like. Should it hew closer to the Republicans or the Democrats on culture? What about on economics? For business leaders, left-of-center social views may pair nicely with a love of tax cuts and deficit reduction. Ordinary voters, though, don’t share their tastes.
In 2017, Drutman released an analysis of voters in the 2016 election that plotted them out on a Cartesian plane, mapping respondents by their views on economic as well as cultural issues. Trump voters tended to cluster around economically moderate, culturally conservative views. Clinton voters tended to hold views that were progressive on both economics and culture. Two quadrants remain: the social conservatives who favor more active government, and those who are “fiscally conservative, socially liberal.”
The quadrant housing those social conservatives who have more progressive fiscal views is well-populated. In fact, it isn’t hard to imagine an independent Trump candidacy in 2016 having a great deal of traction due to the number of populists up for grabs.
But those fiscally conservative social progressives? The quadrant is mostly bare. While those most equipped to self-fund a presidential campaign may often fall into that ideological space, there is not an enormous number of ordinary voters who are there with them.
Drutman says the voters who do live down in that lonely part of the graph tended to be on the younger side. Maybe it is the case that as more of these young voters become activated in response to having a candidate representing their worldview, their numbers will swell. And there’s no telling who Democrats will nominate in 2020 and what kind of ideological space may be up for grabs come next year.
Business leaders such as Howard Schultz often succeed by correctly gauging and shaping consumer preferences, building empires out of pumpkin spice lattes. But when it comes to politics, their instincts can deceive them. Figuring out the formula for a third-party candidacy is even tougher than roasting the beans for the perfect cup of coffee.