The Boyertown Area Times
Two parties keep grip on voters
It’s the year before a presidential election, which means it’s once again time for calls for a unity ticket of a Democratic and a Republican 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. Needless to say, these efforts didn’t get very far. They 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. In fairness, this view is supported by polling. But it’s misleading.
Americans are often dissatisfied with their choices in presidential elections. The major parties themselves have been viewed unfavorably by the public for many years. Yet party voting is as high as it’s ever been.
In 2020, 94% of Democrats voted for Joe Biden. The same percentage of Republicans voted for Donald Trump that year. Some 99% of partisan offices in this country are held by Democrats or Republicans. Americans may say they want other options, but they don’t vote that way.
About 45% of voters consider themselves independent, far outpacing affiliation with either of the major parties, but this, too is 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 jump back and forth between the parties is a little less than 10%, and that hasn’t changed over time. And 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, Trump and Hillary Clinton. Plus, there was a credible alternative on the ballot — the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Johnson/Weld pulled 3% of the vote, while 90% of Democrats and Republicans voted for their party’s candidate.
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. The costs of the other party winning are far higher than they used to be. Even Republicans who dislike Trump tend to stick with him in general elections, because having Democrats control the government just seems too horrible to them. 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 voters didn’t see major differences between Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush and therefore less risk in having either one in the presidency. This was a different world.
There’s another concern with groups like No Labels: It’s not clear what they stand for besides creating another ballot line. 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 is worth the time and investment, if only to take a stance against polarization. But 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, 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.