Americans say they’re sick of the major parties, but they don’t vote that way
It’s the year before a presidential election, which means it’s once again time for a group to call for a unity ticket of a Democratic and a Republican for president and vice president or for an independent candidate to avoid the dysfunction of the parties entirely.
This happens just about every four years. There are lessons to learn from past seasons, especially in these extremely polarized times.
The current effort by the No Labels group to get a presidential ballot line in all 50 states for 2024 is being treated as something of a novelty, but we’ve seen something like this in most modern presidential elections. Just four years ago Unite America was proposing a bipartisan unity ticket for 2020, pushing the major parties to commit to having a vice presidential candidate of a party different from their own. (They even floated the idea of a John Kasich/John Hickenlooper ticket.)
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In 2012, there was Americans Elect, which wanted to use a “nonpartisan, national online presidential primary” to find common-sense solutions and candidates. Back in 2008, the Unity08 organization was trying to make a Sam Nunn/Michael Bloomberg ticket a thing. There was even a concerted effort to forge a Kerry/McCain ticket back in 2004.
Needless to say, these efforts didn’t get very far. It wasn’t for lack of resources or energy but, rather, because these efforts are founded on a substantial misreading of American politics.
Often, efforts like this begin with claims about Americans’ dissatisfaction with the two-party system and with the choices they get in elections. “The vast majority of people in America are not happy with the direction of the country and they don’t want to see either Joe Biden or Donald Trump as president,” said former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who is a strong No Labels backer. And in fairness, this view is supported by polling.
But it’s also a misleading view.
Americans are often dissatisfied with their choices in presidential elections. The percentage satisfied with the direction of the country in general has been under 50% for two decades. The major parties themselves have been viewed unfavorably by the public for many years. And yet… party voting is as high as it’s ever been.
Ninety-four percent of Democrats voted for Joe Biden in 2020. The same percentage of Republicans voted for Donald Trump that year. Some 99% of partisan offices in this country — from president on down to state legislature and some city councils — are held by Democrats or Republicans. Americans may say they want other options, but they don’t vote that way.
Groups like No Labels point to the growing number of “independent” voters — today about 45% of voters consider themselves independent, far outpacing affiliation with either of the major parties. This is true but, again, misleading.
Even if many voters choose not to call themselves a Democrat or a Republican, we know that a great many of those lean toward one of those parties, and that they are as loyal to the party they lean toward as voters who embrace a party label.
The percent of Americans who are truly independent — those who actually jump back and forth between the parties — is still a little less than 10% and that hasn’t changed over time. What’s more, that segment of the population is far less likely to turn out to vote than the partisans are.
We had a great test of this theory in 2016. That election was between the two least popular major party nominees in the history of polling, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Plus, there was a credible alternative on the ballot — the ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. If ever there were a reason to not vote for a major party and a way out of it, it was then. And it didn’t happen — Johnson/Weld pulled 3% of the vote. Ninety percent of Democrats voted for Clinton, and 90% of Republicans voted for Trump.
There are so many people who don’t like the major parties, so why do they tend to vote with them anyway?
A lot of this has to do with a pattern that political scientists call Duverger’s Law. The quick version is that in election systems like ours — representation done by district, in which whoever wins even the narrowest plurality of votes wins the whole election — voters tend not to want to “waste” a vote, or to cast a vote that could make the party they like least more likely to win. You tend to see a strong two-party system in places with such election rules.
Conversely, there are other election systems, particularly common to democracies in Europe, built on proportional representation, where the percentage of the vote roughly corresponds to a percentage of political control.
Imagine, say, a Green Party winning 15% of the vote and getting 15% of the seats in Congress. In situations like that, it makes more sense to vote for a party that’s not one of the top two. There are people and groups currently working to move the U.S. toward such a system, but voters rightly recognize that we are not there now.
Adding to the situation is our intense level of polarization. There are very sharp ideological differences between the major parties today that didn’t exist a few decades ago. One consequence of that is that the costs of the other party winning are far higher than they used to be. Even Republicans who dislike Donald Trump tend to stick with him in general elections, because having Democrats control the government just seems too horrible to them.
Joe Biden has plenty of detractors within the Democratic Party, but they nearly all vote with him for the same reason. In 1992, Ross Perot got one vote in five in the popular vote, but that happened in part because many of those voters didn’t see major differences between Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush being in the White House — and therefore less risk in having either one in the presidency. This was a strikingly different world.
There’s another concern with a group like No Labels and other similar groups: It’s not clear what they stand for besides creating another ballot line. Joe Lieberman, an advocate for No Labels, frequently touts the organization’s “common-sense, moderate, independent platform,” but their website mainly talks about giving people more choices, not having a Biden-Trump rematch, people voting for rather than against a candidate. What is this platform they want candidates to adhere to? Is it just the midpoint between the Democrats and the Republicans? Where is that midpoint?
Now, maybe one would think this effort — even if it doesn’t win the White House — is worth the time and investment, if only to take a stance against polarization. But there’s some chance that this symbolic effort could change the outcome of 2024. A third-party ticket probably wouldn’t pull from both major parties equally. And it wouldn’t take very many votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona or elsewhere to change who gets that state’s electors and who wins the presidency. That outcome would not move the nation more toward moderation.
Third party efforts, whether in the form of an independent candidate or a unity ticket or something similar, may sound appealing, but they stand little chance of winning and could well scramble the results of the 2024 presidential election.
— Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the co-author of “Political Parties.”