To Be or Not to Be a Third Party

When I began my journey with Unite America, Russ Verney was one of the first people I approached for advice on how to effectively introduce new competition in our political system.

As political advisor for Ross Perot’s presidential campaign in 1992 and as the Founding Chairman of the Reform Party in 1996, he had first-hand experience with the most recent and most successful attempt to disrupt the two-party duopoly in America.

Russ’ advice was short and simple: “Don’t start a party.”

Although he supported our mission to elect independent candidates to office, he warned that parties are susceptible to being co-opted by fringe elements — as was the case when the Reform Party fractured over the nomination of Pat Buchanan in 2000 and ultimately collapsed.

I added Russ’ well-founded warning to the top of a long list of pros and cons on the issue as our organization again wrestled with this question heading into the 2018 elections. Ultimately, Unite America decided to keep our focus on organizing as a movement to elect independent candidates, rather than attempting to establish a traditional third party.

A week rarely goes by without this topic coming up among passionate advocates of both approaches, so this post is intended to provide a deeper rationale and invite continued conversation.

The Virtues of Parties

When Unite America’s founder Charles Wheelan wrote the Centrist Manifestoin 2013 and launched our endeavor, he described forming a “Centrist Party” that would “take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.”

Wheelan’s core insight was that for such a political party to be effective, it simply needed to win enough seats in Congress to control the balance of power — rather than elect an outright majority of members itself.

If both parties are badly broken and unpopular, it seemed intuitive to suggest the creation of a new one. After all, parties have some big advantages, including:

  • Issues. Parties offer voters a shortcut to understanding what an affiliated candidate stands for, even if they know nothing about a particular candidate on the ballot (which is often the case).
  • Identity. Parties offer activists a group to join and an identity to assume. For better or worse, we know humans are wired to be tribal creatures.
  • Infrastructure. Parties offer candidates sustained support from cycle to cycle, including donors, volunteers, and campaign talent.
  • Institutions. Parties offer elected officials, particularly legislators, a structure to advance shared policy objectives — on the inside through party caucuses and the outside through partisan advocacy.

Yet, as Wheelan recalls, the idea of starting a new party was met with significant skepticism from media, donors, and potential supporters alike, who outright dismissed the possibility based on the near-universal failure of third parties to gain traction or win elections in the past. (For more on that, see: Duverger’s Law.)

Those skeptics had a point: The Green Party and the Libertarian Party, for example, have never elected a single member to Congress since their founding in 1991 and 1971, respectively. You’d have to go back to the Progressive Party (1912–1916) to find an example of a national third party winning Congressional seats; the Progressives’ success in electing 14 members of Congress over three election cycles was both limited and short-lived.

Pragmatically, even though we argued that most Americans desire a third alternative (they do) and that this time could be different, we were not able to convince enough early supporters that a new party was possible, absent a billionaire benefactor to fund it or a nationally known personality to lead it. (And, it should be noted, both of these circumstances could easily compromise the new party from the outset by making it a tool of one individual’s political agenda.)

The Centrist Party thus became the Centrist Project and later Unite America, with a focus on electing centrist, independent candidates –– beginning at the state legislative level and building up. So far, this has proved to be a good decision, as we have dramatically shrunk our barrier to entry and, in the process, recognized there are plenty of other reasons to avoid starting a new party from the outset.

The Vices of Parties

Russ Verney wasn’t the only one who gave a warning about starting a new party. Our Founders had plenty to say about it, too.

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned: “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

He argued that while parties “may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

The Founders feared that the emergence of organized political factions would subvert the common good for their own interests — namely, gaining and maintaining political power. We are living that reality today.

If the inevitably self-serving nature of political parties is the problem, then is building a new party really the solution? If 44% of Americans choose to not affiliate with a party, in part because many have come to despise them, then do they really want to join a new one? If so, wouldn’t the best we could say is: “trust us, we’re different”?

Even if we disregard this fundamental dissonance, there are still a range of practical barriers that will make the success of a new political party difficult, especially relative to the alternative of supporting independent candidates:

  • Ballot Access. A national party is essentially an association of state parties, and each of the 50 states have their own rules for what is required to secure and keep a line on the ballot. In any single election, it is almost universally the case that forming a third party in a state to nominate a candidate is a more onerous task than collecting signatures to place an independent candidate on the ballot. (Minnesota, for example, requires gathering close to 150k signatures to start a new party, whereas an independent can get on the ballot with 2,000 signatures.) While third parties may be able to more easily nominate future candidates, in many states, that requires consistently running candidates and maintaining a certain level of popular support — or you’re set back to square one.
  • Brand. If all or most of the voters know what a third party stands for (andmany like it), that’s a competitive advantage for a third party candidate. But building a recognizable brand among voters requires a whole lot of time and money; otherwise, voters are inclined to assume a third capital-p Party is likely to be a fringe group. On the other hand, a plurality of voters already self-identify as “independent” — so appearing on the ballot as an “independent” has an inherent and invaluable benefit.
  • Voter Registration. It’s one thing to ask a voters to support a third candidate, but it’s a unique logistical and psychological challenge to ask voters to give up their current affiliation and change to a new one in order to join a new party — as would be necessary to build a base of members necessary for the party’s growth, governance (including nominating candidates), and operation.
  • Organization. The legal, financial, and electoral infrastructure required to start and maintain a national party (again, which is really 50 state-party organizations) cannot be understated. We’re talking tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars — and that’s just to get to the point of being able to run candidates in the first place. In the early stages, those resources are undoubtedly better allocated to supporting the success of individual candidates, especially when proof of viability is the most important obstacle to hurdle.

This isn’t to say that, in certain states, forming or partnering with a third party might not be an advantageous route given unique rules or electoral dynamics. The Oregon Independence Party and United Utah Party are good examples of state-based organizations who are running credible, centrist candidates in 2018. And there are new efforts underway, including Serve America Movement and Party of the Center in Kansas.

Our Independent Movement

We’re often asked: if you’re not a party, then what are you? The answer is pretty simple: we’re a movement to support and elect independent candidates to office.

Specifically, we aim to elect independents to narrowly divided legislatures where, as a committed centrist coalition, they can deny both parties a majority and use their leverage to forge common ground policy solutions. We call this our “Fulcrum Strategy.”

Now, the important caveats:

  • You don’t have to leave your party to be a member of Unite America. Much like the successful En Marche! movement in France, we welcome supporters who are existing party members but also want to support our candidates. And like En Marche!, we also welcome candidates who were previously associated with one party or another.
  • We won’t support just any independent candidate. We only endorse independent candidates who are individuals of integrity, have the ability to run competitive campaigns, and sign on to our “Declaration of Independents” statement of shared principles.
  • We are still building some structures of a party. To succeed in our mission of electing independents, we must replicate some of the functions of a party including: recruiting candidates, raising money, organizing volunteers, and building electoral infrastructure such as voter data. Hence, I often refer to Unite America as an “Unparty” — as we are building an electoral vehicle for candidates to run for office without a party. In short, we get most of the upsides of a party, but without all the baggage.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the main differences between our “independent movement” and a traditional “third party” boil down to: (i) how we are legally organized and (ii) how we are publicly branded.

We’ve chosen the path of a movement at the outset because it is the most effective and efficient first step toward achieving electoral success, while advancing our mission to elect leaders who put country over party and without imposing a top-down, rigid ideology of our own.

As our primary goal is better governance, we remain open-minded to how our movement will evolve in the future:

  • Independents could be a sustainable “fulcrum” force an in increasing number of state legislatures and in Congress;
  • One of the two parties could reform itself to win over our voters, which is how most third efforts in history like the Populists put themselves out of business;
  • Or, our movement could eventually grow large enough to become a party and displace one of the existing two, which is what the Republicans most 
    recently did to the Whigs in 1854.

Only time will tell.

What we know right now is that the approach we’ve committed to is, in fact, possible. Many independents have already won office to state legislative seats, Governorships and to Congress — including Governor Bill Walker and Senator Angus King who serve today. And many viable independents are running for office in 2018.

Our job is to help get them elected and bring this movement to scale. Party or no party, I think we can all agree that our political system will certainly benefit from the new competition.