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More Voters Are Independent, But Minor Parties Still Struggle

Lots of people no longer feel at home with either the Democratic or Republican parties. They usually hate one of the major parties too much, however, to chance their vote on a third party.

Ralph Nader, running as an independent candidate, has been blamed for Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential elections. (Christine Breslin/McClatchy DC/TNS)
If any state seems ripe for a robust third party, it might be Utah. It’s a heavily Republican state, but one that still isn’t sold on Donald Trump. Investment banker Evan McMullin, running as a conservative independent, took 21 percent of Utah’s presidential vote in 2016, only six percentage points less than Democrat Hillary Clinton.

President Trump’s approval ratings are still low in Utah, with one poll in June finding that 46 percent of residents “strongly disapprove” of his job performance. He’s still a lock to carry the state’s vote in November, but as in the rest of the country, many people are left wishing there were an alternative.

The United Utah Party is seeking to provide just such an alternative. United Utah, which formed in the wake of Trump’s election, is running 25 candidates for seats ranging from county commission to Congress.

“It’s been an interesting phenomenon,” said Brian King, the Democratic leader in the Utah House. “It’s a conglomeration of former Democrats and former Republicans — people who were disenchanted with the degree to which the Republican Party, to their mind, had been captured by the right wing and some Democrats who felt on social issues the party had gotten away from the teachings of LDS,” or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Around the country, lots of voters are unhappy with the two major parties. The number of people registering as independents has been growing for years. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans identify as independent — a larger share than either Republicans or Democrats. 

“Our sense is that major party support is waning, among young people especially,” said Richard Davis, who chairs the United Utah Party. “Millennials are much less likely to affiliate with a party.”

Although many people say they don’t feel at home either in the GOP or the Democratic Party, their actual voting behavior shows that they are more fearful of one party or the other taking power. That’s especially true during a time of intense polarization, when the worst outcome would be that the party you hate the most wins.

Minor parties are still falling prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Most people won’t vote for them because they don’t believe they can win. Polls this year consistently indicate that third-party candidates will take a much smaller share of the presidential vote than they did in 2016, when many people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either Trump or Clinton.

“Even though it sounds like voters are complaining, usually they complain more about one of the parties,” said Daniel Lee, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “There hasn’t actually been an increase in true independents.”

Exploiting Spoilers

Democrats still blame the Green Party for costing them the presidential election in 2000, with Ralph Nader taking votes that might have gone to Al Gore. In 2016, Green candidate Jill Stein took more votes in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than Trump’s margin of victory in those states, although arguably Trump lost more votes than Clinton due to the performance of Libertarian Gary Johnson.

The idea that third-party candidates are spoilers with no chance of winning — only hurting the chances of one of the major parties — is so deeply ingrained that the major parties themselves do all they can to keep minor parties off the ballot. 

Unless they think a minor party will hurt the other party more.

This year, Republican operatives have aided rapper Kanye West in his quest to make the presidential ballot in several states, in the belief he could peel African American votes away from Democrat Joe Biden. Republican activists and attorneys have also helped promote the Green Party’s chances — in some cases, without the Green Party’s knowledge.

“You get help where you can find it,” Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s presidential nominee, told the Washington Post. “They have their reasons and we have ours.”

Earlier this month, Democrats sued successfully to keep Hawkins off the Pennsylvania ballot. The state supreme court — which has five Democratic justices — voted 5-2 that the Green Party had not followed proper ballot-access procedures.

In Minnesota, “Republican trolls” are running under the banner of the Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots-Legalize Now parties, hoping to take votes away from Democrats, particularly in state Senate races, with that chamber in play.

“Clearly the Republicans decided to run all these candidates for this spot and most of them don’t even favor legalization and are just running to siphon votes away from the Democratic Party,” Ken Martin, who chairs the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, told MinnPost. (In Minnesota, the Democrats’ official name is a nod to its absorption of the old Farmer-Labor Party.)

On Thursday, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon announced that a congressional election will be postponed until February, due to the death of Legal Marijuana Now nominee Adam Weeks. State law calls for a special election if a “major party” candidate dies within 79 days of the regular election. The two pro-cannabis parties qualified for that status in 2018, when each fielded a candidate who received more than 5 percent of the vote for a statewide office.

Fusion Power

Utah is one of 18 states that have homegrown third parties, according to Ballot Access News. The most successful electorally is the Vermont Progressive Party.

That party currently holds nine seats in the Legislature — easily the most concentrated success of any minor party in the nation — as well as a majority on the Burlington City Council. Both state Auditor Doug Hoffer and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman ran for their current offices with combined Progressive and Democratic support. Zuckerman is this year’s Democratic nominee against GOP Gov. Phil Scott.

Some of the most active minor parties — including the Independent parties of Connecticut and Oregon — are able to run so-called fusion candidates, who are listed on both their lines and those of a major party. In New York, the Working Families Party — which has been influential in Democratic primaries in that state and some others — will lose its automatic ballot line unless at least 2 percent of New Yorkers vote for Biden on the WFP line. The new threshold was a change engineered by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has sometimes feuded with the progressive party.

Most minor-party candidates are an afterthought. Others run into the Tinkerbell problem of disbelief. A Brigham Young University thesis determined that McMullin could have won Utah’s presidential vote in 2016, if only more people believed he could carry the state.

“The problem that third parties always have is that there are people who say that a third party is closer to where I think things should be politically, but I’m not going to vote for them because I don’t think they’re going to win,” said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political scientist. “It’s hard to feel like you’re an important political party when you’ve lost all of your elections.”

Can United Utah Unite Utah?

United Utah's first candidate, Jim Bennett, took 9 percent of the vote in a special congressional election in 2017 — far from winning, but a lot more than third parties usually get, especially right out of the gate. 

In 2018, 18 candidates ran under the United Utah Party banner, with a few state legislative candidates taking more than 30 percent of the vote. “Success breeds interest and more success,” Davis said.

Still, the party hasn’t had any of the kind of success that matters most in politics — namely, winning elections. Davis isn’t promising any miracles this year. 

“I’m chair of the party and I repeatedly dampen expectations from people so that they realize this is a long-haul thing,” he said. “It’s not something that we should expect will produce results within an election or two, in terms of winning lots of seats.”

United Utah is an effort to give voters who are fed up with both Democrats and the GOP a fresh choice. The party takes positions on some issues that would normally be associated with Republicans, such as supporting term limits and fiscal restraint, along with more Democratic-sounding stances such as increased funding for education and campaign finance limits.

Davis argues that with the two major parties in a period of realignment — with Republicans and Democrats gaining, losing or swapping various subsets of voters based on geography and demographics — more voters will question whether they still feel comfortable in their habitual parties.

“This is a party that is avowedly centrist, appealing to voters who think Democrats are too liberal and Republicans too conservative, and would like to position themselves smack dab in the middle,” Burbank said.

The question is how many voters belong in that middle. Voters and candidates labeled as moderate often hold views on a few issues that break strongly with their party’s position, rather than taking a centrist position on most issues, such as fiscal conservatives who support gun control, for example.

Rather than seeking the middle, most notable minor-party candidates emphasize starkly different views on an issue than the major parties, or perhaps highlight an issue the major parties have neglected. That’s the case today with the cannabis parties in Minnesota or the environmentally minded Greens, as well as past candidates such as presidential hopeful Ross Perot, who made budget deficits a fetish in 1992 and 1996, and George Wallace, who ran on opposition to civil rights in 1968. 

Even then, the major parties tend to co-opt the most salient third-party ideas, said Lee, the UNLV professor. He notes that minor parties get trapped in a vicious circle. They have a hard time convincing voters and donors that they have a real chance of winning. For that reason, savvy politicians are more likely to stick with either the Republicans or Democrats. 

“The paradigm of the two-party system is a hard one to break,” said King, the Democratic legislator. “That’s the lesson I’ve taken away from this United Utah experience.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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