Centrist Third Parties Face an Uphill Battle, even Compared with Other Third Parties

In a time when our acrimonious major parties experience historic levels of public disapproval, it’s not surprising that political outsiders are considering centrist third party challenges in 2020. Morgan Stanley’s Eric Grossman is trying to build a Serve America Movement (SAM) party,  vague on issues but keen on civility, while Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz contemplates running on a culturally liberal, pro-business ticket. America’s system of voting, where one voter can only cast one vote for one candidate in an electoral district, severely disadvantages third parties. In New York state, former Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner made an admirable effort to run for governor as a SAM candidate, but received even fewer votes than the Green and Libertarian party candidates. Centrist political parties must overcome additional hurdles: moderates are less likely to coalesce and actively work towards political goals.

America’s single member districts greatly reduce the chances third party victories by ensuring that only the top two candidates for office have a real chance at winning a district or state. If I prefer the Green Party to the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, voting for the Green Party wastes a vote that might be needed to defeat the Republicans. Indeed, as of election night of 2018, it appeared that Green Party votes were costing Kyrsten Sinema a victory for the Arizona Senate race, even though the Green Party candidate had dropped out and told her followers to vote for Sinema. If a third party challenge is to win, it must first pass reforms like Maine’s ranked choice system where voters’ second, third, and fourth choices are advanced when higher ranked choices are eliminated in the first round.

Centrist third parties confront problems above and beyond those faced by other third parties. The first is an intensity gap between moderates who respect both sides and extreme partisans who view rival parties in Manichean terms. If you see some good in both parties, you’re less likely to believe the fate of the country rests on your political activism. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd-Whitman, founder of the “It’s My Party Too” PAC (IMP PAC), told me that “we need extreme moderates.” Unlike many third parties – abolitionists, prohibitionists, suffragists, socialists, and nativists – the two major parties would not be neglecting a centrist party’s intense beliefs but its not-so-intense beliefs.

While conducting interviews for my book on party transformation, I found that both members of the Christian Right and their opponents agree that people with extreme beliefs are generally more willing to sacrifice their time and tolerate shrill debate than people with less extreme beliefs. Iowa’s former lieutenant governor Joy Corning, a Republican who supported abortion rights, told me that cultural conservatives took over the state party in the 1990s by showing up at party meetings and create a hostile environment for their opponents. Moderates eventually shrugged, complaining “we don’t have to listen to this” and spending their Tuesday nights at home. Eric Woolson, the chair for Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty’s Iowa campaigns, said the “the people that understood the rules, that knew what it was gonna take to get their people on to the central committee and state chair…They stuck with it long enough to make that happen. The other people stayed home and said ‘to Hell with it.’”

If centrists were unwilling to give up their time for acrimonious battles during the culture wars, why would they tolerate the pugnacious politics of Donald Trump and likeminded politicians?

Other political scientists have found the same pattern. To the extent that moderates treat opposing sides with civility, as SAM urges, they will have a hard time exciting audiences and mobilizing like-minded citizens. Diana Mutz shows that voters with politically heterogenous networks, as moderates are likely to have, are less likely to vote or otherwise participate in political activities. As Mutz concludes, “were it not for deep, fundamental political disagreements between partisans, it is unlikely that people would become as engaged as they are in the political process.”

A second problem centrist parties confront is the absence of preexisting networks of moderates. As I argue here and here, liberals rely heavily on unions to exploit preexisting nonpolitical networks for political purposes. Labor unions are unlikely to sign on to the economic agenda of Schultz or Grossman. Conservatives found a relative concentration of religious conservatives among evangelical churches. And while a centrist movement could hypothetically reach out to moderate mainline churches, they would confront a more diverse mixture of political views than one finds in evangelical churches. The organization No Labels, under fire recently as affiliated Democrats opposed Nancy Pelosi as the House Speaker, has a similarly formidable task in organizing hard-to-network centrists.

Of course, H. Ross Perot’s centrist challenge in 1992 and 1996 spurred both major parties to adopt some of his priorities. As in 1992, the two major parties are unpopular. However, parties have become more extreme, party activists have become more extreme, and fewer partisans have cross-cutting social identities. And the major parties today are unlikely to adopt a successful third party’s focus on civility and moderation, because that would cost them among its most active partisans itching for a fight.

The lack of intensity and preexisting moderate networks means that a centrist third party would need to find a way to compensate for less activist mobilization. Paradoxically, they could learn from Donald Trump’s polarizing campaign for the Republican nomination. Many traditional party activists opposed Trump during the primaries, but his fame and media presence enabled him to appeal directly to unorganized voters. As Thomas Patterson has pointed out, the media craved Trump’s novelty, conflict, and sensation. H. Ross Perot was likewise intriguing to Larry King’s audience. Perhaps a centrist celebrity could offer novelty and sensation without sacrificing the party’s aspirations for harmony, or compensation for activism with paid media.

Even if most Americans say they prefer a civil tone in politics, parties needed to energize their most motivated supporters need to win, and incivility and extremism are effective ways of energizing supporters. A centrist party has an uphill battle to win elections even compared with other third parties, but if it learns from history, it might become a long shot rather than a no-shot.

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