A group of Democrats and Republicans have broken away from their respective political allegiances to form what they describe as a more middle-of-the-road political party, offering an alternative voice to deadlock and polarization in Washington.
nicknamed the front partfounders David Jolly, Christine Todd Whitman and Andrew Yang, writing in the Washington Post, argue that the country needs a new political party that caters to the “moderate, common-sense majority,” rather than the “margins” of the two big parties. All former office holders as well as a presidential candidate (Yang), the trio say the party will advocate for electoral reform, tackling issues such as “preferential voting…open primaries, end of gerrymandering…and national protection of voting rights”.
“Both major parties have hollowed out the sensitive center of our political system, even though that’s where most voters want them to move,” they wrote. “A new party must delineate the space between the two.”
If it is true that a growing majority of American adults have expressed a desire for a third-party alternative to shake up the political system, doing so in practice is “extremely difficult”, says Costas Panagopouloshead of the political science department at Northeastern.
One of the reasons it’s so hard for third parties to break through, of course, is quite simple: America’s electoral system is a win-win. In a congressional system with single-member districts, a candidate only needs a plurality – that is, simply the most votes, but not a majority – to be declared the winner. This first-past-the-post design promotes bipartisan competition and forces all other alternatives, at best, to become potential “spoiler parties,” says Panagopoulos.
The chances of success for alternatives, such as the Forward Party, are therefore slim to nil, he says.
“It is more likely that an alternative party will emerge to replace one of two great parties than a true third party that achieves national success,” says Panagopoulos. “This is due to the nature of our winner-take-all electoral system.”
Of course, that’s what happened to Whigs in the mid-19th century when the dominant party was ousted by the GOP.
Panagopoulos says it’s more often the case for third parties to succeed in systems that have “proportional representation, or mechanisms for smaller parties to capture smaller vote shares to win seats in the legislature.”
And the creation of a new political party in the United States is not in itself particularly remarkable. There are dozens small politically active parties across the country, but very few are eligible to vote.
To qualify for the ballot, parties must clear all sorts of hurdles that vary by state, including securing a share of the vote. For presidential candidates wishing to vote, there is a list of criteria it is equally daunting for alternative parties seeking to endorse one of their own for high office.
However, the Forward Party has an advantage: its founders (in particular Yang) are relatively well known and enjoy national visibility. The announcement of the party’s establishment generated endless media coverage. But, says Panagopoulos, name recognition alone would not lead the party to victory at a time when voters, despite growing discontent with the two dominant parties, nevertheless remain closely and complicatedly aligned with them.
“The identity of citizens’ voters is more tied to their partisan allegiances in a way that is more intense today than ever before,” he says.
Although third-party candidates rarely make a splash in national elections, there are some notable success stories. Ross Perot, for example, who ran as an independent in the 1992 presidential election, won 19 percent of the popular vote – although he carried no state nor received a single electoral vote. But no other third-party candidate since Theodore Rooseveltwho ran for a third term in 1912 as leader of the Progressive Party, received as large a share of the popular vote as Perot.
In addition to the spoiler effect, third parties are also threatening to cannibalize the vote in favor of a less desirable candidate, according to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who tweeted on the issue recently.
“Remember that historically, third parties sometimes have the effect of swinging a close election towards the candidate of an existing party who is the opposite of what the third party represents,” he said in the tweet.
The Forward Party, as of August 1, did not share details of specific policy proposals. Instead, his website lists three core priorities that he says will help “stepping stone policy-making”. They include “free people, thriving communities and a vibrant democracy.” Yang, Jolly and Todd Whitman say they merged their national organizations—the front partthe Renewing the American Movement and the Serving the American Movement— under the new platform.
The party’s launch alone sends “a strong warning” to Democrats and Republicans alike that they could be vulnerable to losing significant support for new initiatives like the Forward Party, Panagopoulos says.
“But it is not necessarily true that an alternative [party] would do better or otherwise adopt policies that better serve the people,” he says.
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