A Third Party Pops Up in a One-Party State

The 2016 election may have opened the door for third parties. This is most apparent in Utah.
by | September 2017
Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin won 21.5 percent of the vote in Utah. (AP)

In the wake of a big election, people are often fed up with the two major parties, and talk easily turns to the prospects for a third party. Nothing much usually comes of that, but following the 2016 presidential races, a third party seems much more promising in an unlikely place: the one-party state of Utah.

Outside a few urban and college enclaves, Democrats are largely irrelevant in the state. The lack of competition has allowed Republicans to shift too far to the right to suit some voters. Donald Trump won Utah easily last year, but 28 percent of voters signaled their disdain for him and the GOP by supporting minor-party candidates. And now, some of these voters have created United Utah, a new party organized by former Democrats and Republicans. “The way to reach out to voters is a moderate approach, and Democrats are rejecting that,” says Richard Davis, a former Democratic Party official now involved with United Utah. “Democrats have become extreme because Bernie Sanders supporters are taking over the party.”

What’s true in Utah is true to some extent all over the country. The major parties have created a big opening in the center. And millennials, who are shown in polls not to be strongly tied to either party, want an alternative. “The rise of Sanders and Trump,” says Bernard Tamas, a political scientist at Valdosta State University and author of a forthcoming book about minor parties, “are signs of openness to people who are outsiders and completely separate from the system.”

If the timing seems like it might be right for a third party, Utah could offer unusually fertile ground. The state may be Republican, but its unique religious history and discomfort with Trump mean many votes could be up for grabs. Since Democrats aren’t much of a factor, there’s less concern that a vote for a third-party candidate would be thrown away. “A lot of third parties are really hoping to replace the second party and become the other competitive party in the area,” says Matthew Dean Hindman, a political scientist at the University of Tulsa. “Utah seems riper than just about anywhere for a third party to emerge.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Historically, most prominent third parties emerged pushing an issue the major parties were ignoring, Hindman notes. Trying to peel off dissatisfied voters in the center may be more difficult than using wedge issues from the right or left. And in Utah, as everywhere, the major parties have enormous advantages, not only in terms of money but also in setting the rules of engagement.

History has shown it’s harder to dislodge incumbent parties than incumbent politicians. “Utah is a special case in a lot of ways,” says Jeremy Pope, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, “but I think the bar is so high that even with Utah being a best-case scenario, it’s still going to be pretty tough.”