The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A third party could be successful. But probably not this one.

To win voters, a party has to stand for something. But what would the Forward Party do in office?

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, former congressman David Jolly, and former Democratic presidential candidate and New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang recently announced here at The Washington Post that they were launching a new political party: the Forward Party. In their words, it is “a new, unifying political party for the majority of Americans who want to move past divisiveness and reject extremism.”

Could it work? In theory, yes — but probably not this party. Here’s why.

Barriers to third party success

Like many other political scientists, I have tended to be pretty dismissive about potential third party success in the U.S. Part of that comes from Duverger’s Law, a theory that suggests that elections like those in the U.S., with winner-takes-all elections in districts that send a single member to the legislature, tend to end up with two major parties. Many other democracies have some form of proportional representation, in which a party’s vote share translates roughly into their share of seats in a legislature. It makes more sense to vote for a minor party in those systems.

This “law,” however, has been fraying a lot in recent decades. Quite a number of third parties have thrived in winner-takes-all systems such as Canada and the U.K.

Even so, modern third parties don’t have a great track record. In 2008, some moderate Democrats and Republicans tried to use new technology to put together a new presidential ticket, called Unity08, that would somehow draw people away from the traditional parties. It didn’t. AmericansElect did pretty much the same thing in 2012, promising to change the way we elect leaders and draw a bipartisan group of voters. It didn’t.

Nor did the Libertarians or Greens get a significant number of third-party votes in 2016, despite the fact that the two major parties ran the least popular presidential nominees in modern times. Instead, 90 percent of Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton and 90 percent of Republicans voted for Donald Trump; the handful of alternative candidates weren’t very successful in pulling partisans away. In general, given how polarized the country is, voters can dislike their own party’s nominee but still see the other choice as far, far worse, and they don’t want to “waste” their vote or, worse, make it easier for the other major party to win.

To be sure, a strong third party could persuade voters. Fewer Americans identify with the major parties than ever before and people are broadly unhappy with their electoral choices. Many regular party-line voters refuse to publicly identify with the party they always vote for, research finds. We don’t know precisely why, but it certainly suggests some underlying dissatisfaction.

Liz Cheney is extremely conservative. That won’t win over conservatives.

Parties need to stand for something

But the Forward Party hasn’t made clear what it offers that would pull voters away from their regular choices. By design, the Forward Party doesn’t stand for much of anything. Yang has been talking this up as one of the party’s major selling points, promising, oddly enough, parties without interests. Even if it succeeded, it would put liberals and conservatives into office who would then need to figure out how to govern. They’d be no closer to agreement than our current leaders are.

The Forward Party’s agenda, if it can be called that, is to pass election laws that make it easier for the Forward Party — and, admittedly, other third parties — to win elections. Those include good-government ideas like ranked-choice voting, independent redistricting commissions, and top-two primaries. The political science evidence is varied but generally suggests that these things could improve the political climate here and there. But they’re not likely to transform the nation into a thriving multiparty democracy.

Political scientists such as Lee Drutman have advocated some reforms that could really change the game. Some include fusion parties, in which different parties could nominate the same candidate for office; proportional representation, in which the share of votes a party gets translates roughly to their share of legislative seats; and multi-member congressional districts, in which, for instance, all of Colorado would vote for eight at-large members of Congress. Even if a party only got 30 percent of the votes, it could still win 30 percent of seats in a legislature, giving it real influence. Changes like these would create some value in voting for, and running with, an alternative party.

But something else is necessary: a party that stands for, well, something. Do its members want guns to be easier or more difficult to obtain? Do they think the social safety net should be more generous or less? Should the United States commit more to fighting climate change at the global level or double down on using fossil fuels while it can?

Even when American parties have been a lot less polarized than they are today, they have generally been coalitions of interests that stood for some set of principles. Sometimes they have drawn on long-standing partisan identities, with voters aligning with a party the way they might to a religion or even a sports team. But it’s not easy to form such an identity overnight, especially when the identity is based on little more than not being one of the other major parties.

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Think local

The Forward Party is trying to organize at a national level, and is not just aiming at the presidency. But third parties have tended to be more successful in local elections.

Dane County Progressives, Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the New Hampshire Free State Project and others have had real success in state and local races, recruiting candidates for office, winning some elections, and substantially influencing government policy. Would it be easy to unite various local efforts and scale them up into a national party? No, but it would likely be more successful than top-down efforts. Influential third parties in American history — including the Populists and the Progressives — began as coalitions of regional interests seeking some common ground to influence national policy.

Winning isn’t everything

Finally, a third party doesn’t need to win to have influence. Ross Perot’s self-funded run for the presidency in 1992 probably changed the way both major parties addressed budget politics. Ralph Nader’s Green Party run in 2000 garnered less than 3 percent of the vote, but may have made all the difference in the world by taking votes from the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.

Given how close modern presidential elections have been, it’s certainly possible the Forward Party could be pivotal in 2024 without winning. But if it wants the other parties to move toward its issues — or to attract their voters — it will need to spend time figuring out just what those issues are.

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Seth Masket is professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.