In recent election cycles, the phrase “lesser of two evils” became all too familiar to Americans.
In 2020, 56% of Joe Biden voters supported his candidacy “because he is not Trump.” In 2018, 68% of Americans stated that the two parties did not adequately represent the American public and wanted a third party. Despite rampant support on the political extremes, most moderate voters, who comprise a vast percentage of the population, settle for who they believe will do the least harm. As we head into the 2024 cycle, history appears to repeat itself.
Despite facing three indictments, former President Donald Trump holds a sizeable lead in Republican primary polls, and incumbent President Joe Biden, even with concerns over his age and low approval ratings, contains a considerable margin in the Democratic primary election. Both seem poised to easily win their respective primaries with little challenge, thus setting up a rematch of the contentious 2020 election.
Very few Americans want this rematch, as the country is increasingly divided and over-politicized. According to a Monmouth University pool in 2022, nearly 90% of citizens fear the nation is going down the wrong path. This rematch will almost certainly add fuel to the fire. If there were ever an election for a third-party candidate to succeed, this would be the golden opportunity, as many Americans seek a reasonable alternative to these flawed candidates and the two-party system.
But will a third-party candidate ever have a realistic shot of winning the presidency? Without any radical change to our current system, the answer is most likely no.
Our current two-party system is due to Duverger’s Law and our winner-take-all, single-vote system. Duverger’s Law “is driven by the idea that in the long run rational politicians and voters will realize that it is hopeless to have more than two parties competing at the national level.” It is challenging for third parties to rise or remain because the voters, even if they are more supportive of a third-party or independent candidate, will vote for the candidate most likely to keep out the greater of two evils.
If a third-party candidate garnered widespread support and received a significant percentage of the popular vote, the odds remain stacked against them. While running as an independent in the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote but zero electoral college votes. If he received enough electoral votes to cause no candidate to reach the magical number of 270, the election then goes to the House of Representatives. Our current Congress is more divided and ideologically opposed than at any point in the last 50 years, meaning the party controlling the House of Representatives would almost assuredly vote for their respective candidate over a moderate third party.
Additionally, candidates in recent elections have faced backlash for taking away votes from major party candidates. In 2016, Democrats scapegoated third-party ballots for the election of Donald Trump, and many fear a similar possibility in the 2024 election.
Despite an uphill battle for third parties, the US population wants a change to our current political discourse and divide. Third parties and independents play an essential role in changing the conversation around our politics and presenting an alternative to the divisive nature of modern American politics. Instead of discouraging third parties, the mainstream should come to grips with why there is a longing for change in the first place.
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