With the strong possibility of having nominees from the two major parties who are largely unpalatable to a large percentage of the electorate, there is momentum building for serious challenges to the way presidential elections are handled. With presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s unfavorability rating the highest ever recorded and Democrat Hillary Clinton not terribly far behind at 52%, it’s clear that the majority of Americans will not be offered a choice they enthusiastically support, at least not by the Democrats or Republicans.
Perhaps the coming election is an opportunity for “the perfect storm,” as party affiliation is at an all-time low. In a recent Gallup poll, only 29% of Americans identified as Democrats and 26% as Republicans, but 42% said they were independents, which is curiously divergent from ideological identification, where only 23% of Americans identify as liberals, but 38% as conservatives.
“There is no analogous election in the modern era where the two top candidates for the nomination are as divisive and weak,” said Steve Schmidt, a top campaign adviser to George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. “There is no precedent for it.”
For this to happen means a great deal of dissatisfaction from within each party. Recent polls indicate as many as 6 of 10 GOP non-Trump voters would consider an independent candidate and there are indications that a third of Bernie supporters won’t vote for Hillary. That might worry Republicans more than Democrats, but in a recent poll of independent voters, given the choice of the two front-runners, only 7% said they would support Hillary while 20% would back Trump. Most notably, a whopping 73% wouldn’t vote for either.
Independents now significantly outnumber those identifying by party, even if how truly “independent” they are is disputed. Stefan Hankin wrote in Republic 3.0:
“Study after study has shown that there are actually very few truly independent voters who don’t lean toward one party or the other – perhaps 6 to 7 percent of the electorate. The vast majority of “independents” are actually what the University of Virginia calls ‘closet partisans’ who think and vote like partisans but don’t want to be openly affiliated with a particular party."
Linda Killian disagrees, and argued in the Daily Beast that “most Americans have a complicated blend of views that don’t fit neatly into the stated positions of either party,” but both she and Hankin agree that moderates, who are often swing voters, are the ones who have to be swayed in any given election and you can easily see the difference when they shift.
Consider the change from 2006, when “independents chose Democratic House candidates over Republicans, 57 to 39 percent, “whereas in 2008, Democrats won independent voters by eight points but then lost them by 19 points in 2010.” Regardless, in this election, both registered party members and those who might otherwise lean to one party or the other as independents are largely rejecting the current front-runners.
Pew Research Center released a survey of 10,000 Americans in 2014 that found that the political class and those who strongly identify with a party were more polarized than at any other point in the last 20 years, but also that most Americans are not in either polarized camp. The extremes increasingly speak the loudest and get the most publicity, yet many people have continued to vote for one of the party nominees, often out of fear.
When it comes to alternatives, the problem with the viability of independent or third party candidates is in how this fear plays out.
Aside from the worry of taking votes away from the candidate we're less afraid of, since we do not elect the president directly but rather through the Electoral College system, a third party candidate can have the effect of removing voters from the final process altogether.
A winning presidential candidate must receive an absolute majority of electoral votes (270). If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives selects the president, with each state delegation having only one vote. At any given time, that means we could probably guess which candidate the House would select.
In the end, many people have continued to vote for the one they perceive to be “the lesser of two evils” and yet, how has that benefitted anyone beyond the short term? Since Dwight D. Eisenhower, no party has stayed in office longer than 12 years before flipping to the other side. Amidst all the cries that the sky is falling, things have remained largely the same while the frustration seems to get worse.
This doesn’t serve us well.
With the current outlook on the 2016 election, the tide is clearly turning. More people are taking a closer look at exactly how we elect our presidential nominees, from primary elections to the fall presidential debates, and people are seeing just how much control the Republican and Democratic parties have over the process. Many voters want an end to the status quo -- they are looking for change.