When Americans vote on November 8 in the midterm elections, most will choose candidates from either the Democratic or Republican parties. Some ballots will include political hopefuls from so-called third parties, which traditionally have had scant success.
One new party is hoping to shake up the system in the years ahead: the Forward Party, led by a former Democratic Party presidential hopeful, an ex-Republican governor of New Jersey and a previous member of Congress, also a Republican, from Florida.
Every U.S. president since the mid-19th century has been either a Republican or a Democrat. The last exception was Millard Fillmore, president from 1850 to 1853, of the Whig Party, which had four 19th-century presidents.
There has not been a true third-party candidate in Congress for more than 50 years. The last success was James L. Buckley of New York’s Conservative Party, elected a U.S. senator in 1970.
America’s most enduring third party is the Prohibition Party, which has had a presidential candidate in every election since 1872 in its quest to ban alcohol as a beverage. Its cause was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933, and its members won office as state legislators, governors, mayors and one seat in Congress — Californian Charles Hiram Randall was a House member from 1915 to 1921.
Many of the smaller parties focus on a single issue or philosophy. Wanting to stay true to their cause, they often fail to attract enough votes to get their candidates elected.
“They also are up against a system that is really biased, you might say rigged, against the ability of smaller parties to make much headway. We don’t have proportional representation in the United States. And so, even if you get 5% of the vote, you don’t get 5% of the seats,” noted writer and democracy activist Micah Sifry.
“About 2 million people voted for minor-party candidates for the U.S. House in 2020. Two million out of, what, 120 million? It’s not a substantial number. It can matter. A few votes going to the Libertarian or the Greens or Prohibition party or whatever can definitely swing those races when they’re really, really close,” explained Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America.
Current system ‘not working’
Entering the U.S. political stage this year is the Forward Party. Among its founders is businessman Andrew Yang, who unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat in that party’s presidential primary two years ago and again last year for New York City mayor.
Joining him at the forefront of the Forward Party: David Jolly, who served in Congress for three years from Florida as a Republican, and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, elected as a Republican.
“You do have to change the system. And that’s why we are supporting ranked choice voting and open primaries. That would mean that the two parties’ candidates would have to compete and talk to everybody, not just to their base,” said Whitman, who was also Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Portraying itself as a centrist alternative that will endorse some Democrats and Republicans — or run its own candidates in otherwise uncontested races — the Forward Party is pushing for ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. In this system, the votes of the lowest-performing candidates in primaries are redistributed to the stronger candidates based on voters’ stated secondary choices.
Sifry is skeptical.
“The Forward Party is in its motivation phase. It’s got something fresh to sell,” he noted. “Andrew Yang is a great salesman. He’s got the energy to go around hustling for this, but they’re going to run into the same problems of how you govern yourself. Who decides for the party and for its state branches what they’re going to do? What gives them any legitimacy, and what holds them together?”
Breaking the duopoly “is going to take a while,” Whitman told VOA. “The system right now is not working for the American people. They recognize that.”
The quest to get the electorate to respond to a new moderate party comes as the country is more polarized than at any other time since the mid-19th century and the Civil War — the era when Republicans and Democrats began their long domination of the country’s politics.
Both real estate investor Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election were the most unpopular presidential candidates in the modern political era, but less than 6% of the electorate selected one of the alternatives on their ballot.
There is a political theory explaining this called Duverger’s law. French scholar Maurice Duverger stated plurality voting favors a two-party government system, and voters do not want to waste their ballots by choosing third-party candidates unlikely to prevail.
That leads to the argument that American politicians who want to radically change the system should compete as a Republican or a Democrat, as did Trump successfully in 2016 before his 2020 defeat, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist, who won Democratic presidential state primaries and caucuses in 2016 and 2020, making him the temporary front-runner in the campaigns.
“It makes a lot more sense to run within the party, one of the major parties, and take it over. The truth of Trump’s election in 2016 is our major parties are not nearly as monolithic as they appear,” said Sifry.
The largest national popular vote share for an alternative candidate since former President Teddy Roosevelt’s run as a “Bull Moose” in 1912 occurred 80 years later when Democrat Bill Clinton ousted incumbent Republican George W. Bush. In a largely self-funded campaign, billionaire Ross Perot, who had never held political office, captured 19% of the popular vote but none of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
“He is seen as having helped tip that election from Bush to Clinton,” Sifry said of Perot. “As part of what he did, the issue really is: Are you comfortable risking being a spoiler?”
Perot tried again four years later, starting the Reform Party. But both his campaign and the new party fizzled, capturing just 8% of the popular vote.