Dealignment and Ron Paul

According to the latest quarterly assessment of partisanship by the Gallup Poll, just 34 percent of Americans are Democrats and only 28 percent are Republicans. This represents slightly less partisanship than Gallup found in 1992, when the Ross Perot presidential candidacy racked up almost 19 percent of the popular vote. That year, 34 percent of Americans were Democrats and 29 percent Republicans.

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Even more interesting than the Gallup organization’s counting of partisans is their overlooked question regarding the need for a third party. Since 2003, Gallup has periodically asked Americans whether the two parties “do an adequate job of representing the American public” or whether they do such a poor job that “a third major party is needed.” The percentage backing a third party has fluctuated between 40 percent and 58 percent. That’s a sizable dissent from the classic notion that we are a two-party political system.

This deeply ingrained and persistent dissent from the two-party monopoly may be the best explanation that realignment isn’t occurring, despite Obama’s popularity. There are other impediments, too. Theories of realignment almost always hinge on either there being a realigning issue or the movement of a particular segment of voters to a new party. Lately, there has been no issue that cuts across party lines in a manner to disrupt traditional partisan loyalties. Since the South shifted to the Republicans, signaling the last realignment, nothing much has happened to change the partisan picture.

The only other harbinger of realignment can be the rise of third parties and independent candidacies that might eventually morph into a party. The latter is such a long shot, of course, that it almost never happens. So we are left with episodic independent candidacies that perpetuate dealignment, one race at a time. The most interesting independent candidacies these days are a factor in blocking any chances for a Democratic realignment. Independent candidates running for governor in several Northeastern states are taking votes mostly away from Democrat front-runners.

But Republicans could also suffer from dealignment. I’m already thinking that Ron Paul is hatching various alternative schemes that could make 2012 another 1992, when Ross Perot’s insurgent campaign cost George H.W. Bush his reelection. Recently, Paul installed one of his high priestesses, Debra Medina, in the Texas gubernatorial race, adding to the field that is already too crowded with Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison. So why would Paul do this? He may be currying favor with Rick Perry. Perry probably benefits by having another female in the race, to rob a few feminist votes from Hutchison.

So if Perry prevails because of Paul’s sidekick, the Texas governor will owe the doctor favors in case he runs for president in 2012 as a Republican. But who knows? Perry, the secessionist, could join Dr. Paul in an even more probable scenario.

My better guess is that the Medina candidacy is a Paul stunt to justify his leaving the Republican Party in 2011 to run a Perot-style campaign for president. When Paul gets nothing and Hutchison wins, Dr. Paul will snort that this proves again that the Republicans are not sufficiently conservative, providing him with the moral justification to head out on his own. In many ways, this makes a lot more sense than Paul running as a Republican.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.