Third Party Blues

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

According to the new Public Policy Institute Poll, disgusted voters are ready for a third party in California. Fifty-five percent of likely voters think a third party is needed. This reflects a similar finding in September 2008. There is no warmth from likely voters for the two major parties. Forty-one percent of likely voters have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party; 31% have a favorable impression of the Republicans. Interestingly, those numbers pretty much reflect party registration in California.

Surprisingly, the unorganized Tea Party reflects better than the Republicans with 34% of likely voters recording a favorable impression. It is not just Republican Party supporters who gave thumbs up to the Tea Party. A good number of those who sing the praises of the Tea Party do not embrace the Republicans. The PPIC poll found that 58% of those voters who have an unfavorable impression of the Republican Party think positively about the Tea Party.

What does this mean? Do the people who like the Tea Party but not the Republican Party feel that the Republican Party abandoned its fiscally conservative, small government roots? That’s what a number of pundits would say. Or are these disgruntled people fiscal conservatives who are opposed to the party’s official position on social issues?

The poll did not drill deep enough to answer those questions, but the answers would be important to determine if the disgust with the major political parties could lead to a third party.

Independents are the greatest supporters of a third party — no surprise there. Sixty-six percent of Independents vote for a third party, followed by 52% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans. Still, when half of major party members think another party would be better than their own, party leaders should pay attention.

What might a third party look like? There’s the rub, as young Hamlet would say. It is difficult to say how a third party would come together and where it would stand. One measuring stick is that that Independents who rally toward a third party have a more favorable view of the Democratic Party (33%) than the Republican Party (21%).

It seems unlikely that a third party could unite the diverse interests of disgusted voters, some who favor Democrats, some who favor Republicans, and others who declare as Independents because they’re so … independent!

The difficulty with creating a third party might explain the defections to support an amorphous group such as the Tea Party.

Of course, some see an opportunity by healing this divide. Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential website FlashReport told me as a leader of the Tea Party and as a Republican Party official he hoped to combine the poll numbers of both to make a powerful force.

As to those who see a different opportunity – that of a third party becoming a reality – it seems unattainable from here, however, as that Hamlet fellow might say, the poll numbers offer a chance to dream.

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