By Sean J. Miller - 10/13/10 09:05 AM EDT
A majority of likely voters think a viable third party would be good for American politics, according to a new poll of likely voters in 10 key open House districts.
Those voters are split, however, on whether the Tea Party should be that alternative.
That number rose to 67 percent for self-identified independents. But even a plurality in the established parties — 49 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans — said they’d like another choice.
“That’s probably the strongest number I’ve seen in a poll of people in America saying that they're interested in a third party,” said pollster Mark Penn.
“There’s a record number of Independents and a record number of people looking for a possible third party,” he said. “And that’s a big finding. There’s an opportunity here.”
The Hill’s poll was conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, which surveyed 4,047 likely voters in 10 open districts. The overall sample has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.
“I think there’s a greater potential for a third party than perhaps [at] any time in our history,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and former adviser to George W. Bush. “There is a very broad level of dissatisfaction throughout the electorate — right, left and middle.
“I think what’s happened goes beyond general dissatisfaction with the economy,” he added. “They want a new way — they want to feel empowered again.”
The rise of the Tea Party movement — a mishmash of disparate organizations under one umbrella — serves as one of the strongest signals that the public is dissatisfied with Democratic and Republican government. But asked if they thought the Tea Party should be the new third party, voters divided. More than two-thirds of Democrats and 42 percent of independents said no. But 55 percent of Republicans said yes, which is perhaps a sign of dissatisfaction among rank-and-file GOPers, and also an acknowledgement that the Tea Party is fueling what appears to be a Republican wave this cycle.
McKinnon said the Tea Party movement is just the “tip of the spear” in the push for a third party.
“They’ve just unlocked the door,” he said. “And voters are kicking the door open.”
The next presidential election, in 2012, could see a third-party contender, McKinnon noted.
“I think, professionally speaking, it’s more likely to happen in a presidential year.”
Several third parties have risen to prominence, most notably as spoilers in presidential elections. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt made an unsuccessful bid to reclaim the White House by running on the Progressive ticket.
More recently, Ross Perot ran under the Reform Party banner vote in the 1992 presidential election, capturing almost 20 percent of the popular vote, which helped Bill Clinton topple President George H.W. Bush.
Ralph Nader made several presidential runs as a Green Party candidate, but his most notable feat was siphoning votes away from Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and others have also made runs for the presidency — with modest success — under the Libertarian Party banner.
For a third party to arise, it would need to be driven by a compelling personality, according to Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
“If there were a single individual identified with the third party — a Teddy Roosevelt, a Ross Perot — you would have a personality to attract people,” he said.
Baker doubted a third-party candidate could capture the White House — or even win a typical congressional race.
“At the presidential level, historically, they’re spoilers,” Baker explained. “At the state level, less so, because people are much more dependent on party label to make a decision. The information level is very low — so as a consequence, [third parties] don’t have much of an impact.
“The franchise matters. It gives people voting cues when there’s no other information available.”
Baker said he doubted the Tea Party would ever become a viable political party. “You vote for a Democrat, a Republican, you know what you’re getting. You vote for a Tea Party person, you could be getting a pig in a poke,” he said.
“Not only no, but hell no,” Judson Phillips, the founder of the group Tea Party Nation, said when asked about the prospect of forming a third party.
“Third parties are simply an invitation to disaster,” he said. “All a third party does is split the vote. “I am yet to meet anyone who wants to have the Tea Party as a [political party],” he said — the more appealing prospect is to “take over” the Republican Party.
The Tea Party Nation organized a national conference in Nashville in February and had one planned for October in Las Vegas. But in a sign of how difficult it is to sustain such a disparate grassroots movement, the Las Vegas conference was called off.
“People weren’t willing to buy tickets,” Phillips said. “We just didn’t have the drive that we had for the first one.”
Meanwhile, McKinnon pointed to the unpredictability of the U.S. political system as one reason why the launch of a third party shouldn’t be discounted.
“The great thing about American politics is we turn conventional wisdom on its ear,” he said.