Can Third Parties Make a Difference in 2024?

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Second of two parts

Should 2024 develop into a four-way race between a Republican, a Democrat, Andrew Yang or another candidate from his Forward Party, and an anti-Trump conservative, presidential politics will enter volatile, if not quite uncharted, territory. Leaving aside 2016, serious four-way contests (in which two third parties received at least 2% of the nationally-aggregated popular vote) have been rare: 1860, 1892, 1912, and 1948. On all four of those occasions, the winning candidate won the Electoral College with  less than half of the nationally aggregated popular vote; twice the winner prevailed with under 42%.  Each of these elections represented a moment of transition for the parties and of fragmentation of national politics. A four-way race in 2024 would fit that description, too, and could prove even more unpredictable. 

Unlike the earlier elections, when divisions were almost entirely based on differences over substantive issues, the 2024 election would also involve divisions over political style or norms. The developing Democratic split is not only about fiscal policy and broader economic questions such as the proper scope of the private-sector economy; it is also about the fervor of wokeness, the kind of polarization that drives activists to follow a dissenting senator into a public restroom to harass her. On the Republican side, divisions would revolve even more around norms. Indeed, the new party proposed by Jonah Goldberg, though committed to Reaganite ideals, would largely be focused on standards of presidential behavior and broader political norms.

Where would all this lead? The most likely scenario is that a full-scale, four-way race won’t materialize. It’s much easier to talk about a third party, or even an individual independent candidacy, than to make it happen. A number of factors could derail even a halting move in that direction: a decision by Donald Trump not to run again would take the wind out of the sails of anti-Trump conservatives, even if Trumpism (however defined) remains a dominant force within the Republican Party. Likewise, a decision by Joe Biden not to run for a second term would draw many disaffected Democrats back into the nomination fray. Why bolt and start an uncertain project from scratch when you might have another chance to win control of your original party? And Yang is not even sure that his planned new party should run a presidential candidate. In both major parties, the widespread phenomenon of “negative partisanship” – voters who say, “I’m a Republican because I can’t stand what the Democratic Party stands for,” and vice-versa – will make partisans less willing to jump ship in favor of a third party.

The Forward Party

It’s worth examining each prospective party in turn. The Forward Party has actually been launched, albeit in protean form. Entrenched party leaders, Yang says, have become disconnected from the needs of their constituents. Yang has advanced a few substantive ideas: universal health care, which will appeal to the left, and universal basic income, his signature issue from the 2020 Democratic primaries. Though a form of “negative income tax” was once supported by Milton Friedman and proposed by Richard Nixon, UBI also mostly appeals to the left. Yang’s ideological position and status as a former Democratic presidential candidate account for the frosty reception the new party has received among Democrats and pro-Democratic commentators, who see it as a threat to their coalition and future prospects.

At the same time, Yang also embraces a technocratic vision of better government management and “fact-based decisions,” as well as political reforms (such as ranked-choice voting) designed to reduce polarization and enhance structural opportunities for third parties. His brand of “radical centrism” brings to mind a hip, left-of-center version of Ross Perot.

The Forward Party could pick up support among some independents and Democrats disaffected by the party’s leftward drift and subservience to interest groups such as teachers’ unions. Yang’s party might also anticipate access to substantial financial resources. But the party’s core positions remain firmly within the Democratic orbit. Democrats have advocated universal health care since Harry Truman’s presidency, and the party has arguably adopted a piecemeal UBI already. As for the other prong of Yang’s platform, concerning institutional change, that approach rarely inspires voters in large numbers (the Progressives of a century ago were an exception). And the institutional issue that Yang has most focused on, ranked-choice voting, suffered a setback when it made a mess of the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City last summer. 

Anti-Trump Conservatives

For his part, Jonah Goldberg makes it clear that his conception of a third party fits within the tradition of defector parties designed to punish the parent party. The new party, according to Goldberg, should “play the role of spoiler by garnering enough conservative votes in the general election to throw the election to the Democrat. … The point is to cause the GOP some pain for its descent into asininity.”

Goldberg also proposes that the new conservative party make an undiluted Reaganism its philosophical standard. Presumably, this would mean a greater attentiveness to fiscal rectitude; beyond its lack of fiscal rectitude, though, Trumpism is either so malleable or so indebted to traditional conservative issue positions that a third party will find it hard to establish clear points of distinction on major issues. 

 As strong as the case against Trump’s character and behavior may be, one has to go back to the Whigs in the 1830s to find a successful party built primarily around opposition to a political figure’s comportment (in their case, it was Andrew Jackson). An Evan McMullin-like sequel seems unlikely to fare much better in 2024. The growing leftward extremism from the Democratic Party also means that Republican voters will be more likely to stick with the GOP’s candidates. In the same way, as long as the specter of Trump’s possible return haunts the political landscape, Democrats will also be reluctant to take a flier on a third party.

That many Americans are dissatisfied with their political choices has been apparent for some time. That it is also quite difficult to convert that dissatisfaction into a viable third or fourth party is also clear. If the Yang and Goldberg factions succeed in creating workable parties, running candidates, and winning a substantial number of votes, they might bring about some of the consequences that strong third parties have produced historically. But the odds against them remain long. Making an impact with third-party efforts will require – as it has in the past – the right national conditions, a close contest between the major parties, and a fair amount of luck. Even then, don’t expect a third-party candidate to win. 

Andrew E. Busch is Crown professor of government and George R. Roberts fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is co-author of “Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics” (Rowman & Littlefield).



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