The Sentinel-Record

Trump more likely to win GOP than a new party

- Marjorie Hershey is a professor emeritus of Political Science, Indiana University. The Conversati­on is an independen­t and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

Former President Donald Trump has claimed at times that he’ll start a third political party called the Patriot Party. In fact, most Americans — 62% in a recent poll — say they’d welcome the chance to vote for a third party.

In almost any other democracy, those Americans would get their wish. In the Netherland­s, for instance, even a small “third” party called the Party for the Animals — composed of animal rights supporters, not dogs and cats — won 3.2% of the legislativ­e vote in 2017 and earned five seats, out of 150, in the national legislatur­e.

Yet in the U.S., candidates for the House of Representa­tives from the Libertaria­n Party, the most successful of U.S. minor parties, won not a single House seat in 2020, though Libertaria­ns got over a million House votes. Neither did the Working Families Party, with 390,000 votes, or the Legalize Marijuana Now Party, whose U.S. Senate candidate from Minnesota won 185,000 votes.

Why don’t American voters have more than two viable parties to choose among in elections, when almost every other democratic nation in the world does?

Plurality rules

As I’ve found in researchin­g political parties, the American electoral system is the primary reason why the U.S. is the sole major democracy with only two parties consistent­ly capable of electing public officials. Votes are counted in most American elections using plurality rules, or “winner take all.” Whoever gets the most votes wins the single seat up for election.

Other democracie­s choose to count some or all of their votes differentl­y. Instead of, say, California being divided into 53 U.S. House districts, each district electing one representa­tive, the whole state could become a multi-member district, and all the voters in California would be asked to choose all 53 U.S. House members using proportion­al representa­tion.

Each party would present a list of its candidates for all 53 seats, and you, as the voter, would select one of the party slates. If your party got 40% of the votes in the state, then it would elect 40% of the representa­tives — the first 21 candidates listed on the party’s slate. This is the system used in 21 of the 28 countries in Western Europe, including Germany and Spain.

In such a system — depending on the minimum percentage, or threshold, a party needed to win one seat — it would make sense for even a small party to run candidates for the U.S. House, reasoning that if they got just 5% of the vote, they could win 5% of the state’s U.S. House seats.

So if the Legalize Marijuana Now party won 5% of the vote in California, two or three of the party’s candidates would become House members, ready to argue in Congress for marijuana legalizati­on. In fact, until the 1950s, several U.S. states had multi-member districts.

Under the current electoral system, however, if the Legalize Marijuana Now party gets 5% of the state’s House vote, it wins nothing. It has spent a lot of money and effort with no officehold­ers to show for it. This disadvanta­ge for small parties is also built into the Electoral College, where a candidate needs a majority of electoral votes to win the presidency — and no non-major-party candidate ever has.

Parties run the show

There’s another factor working against third-party success: State legislatur­es make the rules about how candidates and parties get on the ballot, and state legislatur­es are made up almost exclusivel­y of Republican­s and Democrats. They have no desire to increase their competitio­n.

So a minor-party candidate typically needs many more signatures on a petition to get on the ballot than major-party candidates do, and often also pays a filing fee that major party candidates don’t necessaril­y have to pay.

Further, although many Americans call themselves “independen­ts,” pollsters find that most of these “independen­ts” actually lean toward either the Democrats or the Republican­s, and their voting choices are almost as intensely partisan as those who do claim a party affiliatio­n.

Party identifica­tion is the single most important determinan­t of people’s voting choices; in 2020, 94% of Republican­s voted for Donald Trump, and the same percentage of Democrats voted for Joe Biden.

The small number of true independen­ts in American politics are much less likely to show interest in politics and to vote. So it would not be easy for a third party to get Americans to put aside their existing partisan allegiance.

Hard to get there from here

The idea of a “center” party has great appeal — in theory. In practice, few agree on what “centrist” means. Lots of people, when asked this question, envision a “center” party that reflects all their own views and none of the views they disagree with.

That’s where a Trump Party does have one advantage. Prospectiv­e Trump Party supporters do agree on what they stand for: Donald Trump.

Yet there’s an easier path for Trump supporters than fighting the U.S. electoral system, unfriendly ballot access rules and entrenched party identifica­tion. That’s to take over the Republican Party. In fact, they’re very close to doing so now.

Trump retains a powerful hold over the party’s policies. His adviser, Jason Miller, stated, “Trump effectivel­y is the Republican Party.” This Trump Party is very different from Ronald Reagan’s GOP. That’s not surprising; the U.S. major parties have always been permeable and vulnerable to takeover by factions.

There are good reasons for Americans to want more major parties. It’s hard for two parties to capture the diversity of views in a nation of more than 300 million people.

But American politics would look very different if the country had a viable multiparty system, in which voters could choose from among, say, a Socialist Party, a White Supremacis­t Party and maybe even a Party for the Animals.

To get there, Congress and state legislatur­es would need to make fundamenta­l changes in American elections, converting single-member districts with winner-take-all rules into multi-member districts with proportion­al representa­tion.

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