04.07.09

Newt's Rebellion

The former Speaker says voters are so fed up with the GOP that they might split off to form a third party in 2012. Pollster Douglas Schoen explains why that idea isn’t so loony after all.

The former speaker says voters are so fed up with the GOP that they might split off to form a third party in 2012. Pollster Douglas Schoen explains why that idea isn’t so loony after all.

Newt Gingrich may be on to something.

He said last week at the College of the Ozarks in Missouri that if the Republican Party doesn’t get back to its small-government, limited-spending tradition, that there might well be a third-party movement in 2012.

To be sure, while a great deal of energy and passion was generated in 2008 by Ron Paul and his supporters, it isn’t clear to me how much substantial support there could be for a right-wing party initiative.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that at the same time that Gingrich is organizing a far-right party, the mirror image on the far left could take shape.

The growth of Fox News’ audience for Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and the newly packaged Sean Hannity, as well as the growth of the anti-big-government Tea Party protest movement goes well beyond the Republican Party. But it would be wrong to think that this movement represents more than 10 to 15 percent of the total electorate. The vast majority of American voters, however upset they may be about the size of the deficit and the size of the spending package embodied in the budget that the House and Senate just passed, aren’t ready to take to the streets in support of such a narrow policy agenda.

No, the reason Gingrich is onto something is because for a long time, the American people have been frustrated with the two-party system and have been seeking alternative answers. Polling that Scott Rasmussen conducted before the 2008 election showed that close to half of the electorate was willing to consider a third-party alternative if they disagreed with the major-party candidates on the key issues facing the country. Former Gen. Colin Powell received as much as one-third of the vote in polls as a third-party candidate, and a solid 20 to 25 percent indicated that in a generic contest with an unnamed Democrat and an unnamed Republican, they wanted a third-party alternative.

What then, are the circumstances that are necessary for such a party to emerge in 2012, encompassing more than just a narrow but mobilized segment of the center-right?

First, the Obama administration would have to fail significantly. Given the success of the G-20 summit and the meetings with NATO, as well as the recent increase in the stock market, it is hard to see that happening. But it has only been 78 days since Barack Obama took office. If he faces the same reaction in Congress to some of his policy initiatives on climate change, health care, and overall spending that Bill Clinton faced in 1992, an enfeebled Republican Party and a potentially discredited Democratic Party could leave a wide hole in the middle.

Looking at the American electorate, 50 to 60 percent of voters—centrist Democrats, centrist Republicans, and the third of Americans who are independents—are open to the prospect of a centrist party.

And there is also the possibility of a third party on the extreme left, a prospect that is already being discussed on the Huffington Post, and which was implicitly raised by Jerry Seib’s column in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Such a party would oppose any corporate welfare and support fairly significant redistribution of income. Of course, the Obama administration, at least in terms of the inequality gap, has proposed specific steps to close it, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that at the same time that Gingrich is organizing a far-right party dedicated specifically to limited government, the mirror image on the far left could take shape, with a party explicitly committed to redistributionist policies.

There are structural problems with a third-party movement of any ideological stripe. It is simply hard for a third party to organize, get recruits, and, most importantly, raise money. The ballot-access laws in America, while surmountable, remain draconian for independent candidates, and the two major parties, who appear to disagree on virtually everything, agree on the need to keep any alternatives off of the ballot.

But Gingrich did speak to an extraordinarily important phenomenon in American politics, which is the absolute and complete frustration and disdain that many voters have with the established parties and system. It wouldn’t take much to crack that system and to have voters clamoring for alternatives, as Gingrich suggested. The problem, from Gingrich’s point of view, is the alternatives may well be more substantial in the center or on the far left than on the far-right, though he’s certainly not wrong to speak of the potential fissures that could come.

Douglas E. Schoen is a founding partner for Penn, Schoen & Berland and a co-inventor of overnight polling. He is the author of The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World and Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System.