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In recent polls, Americans wish for a third major party

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

Few democracies in the world are as tightly in the grip of a two-party duopoly as ours. I’ve railed against this in the past, multiple times, during my wonderful decade-plus of MinnPosting. I even once got to learn about and then write about Duverger’s Law, which explains that the likeliest way to lock two and only two parties into power is to have single-member districts with plurality winners, which is how we elect our House and Senate, which have been roughly forever dominated almost totally by the RepubliCrats.

We might have to go beyond Duverger to explain the duopolism of the presidency with its weird Electoral College features, but it’s no coincidence that we have had nothing but Democratic or Republican presidents since the Republicans came along in the 1850s (and before that nothing but Democrats and Whigs going back almost to the creation.

I believe we’re so used to this lesser-of-two-evils duopolism that we think it’s the only way to do democracy, which it isn’t.

So I was a bit surprised and ever so slightly encouraged by a Gallup poll result that came across my desk yesterday, in which I learned that, if the Gallupers know how to take a poll, a fairly sturdy majority of Americans are sick of the RepubliCrat duopoly and wish they had more choices.

Gallup has asked intermittently since 2003, and pretty much every year 2006 this question:

In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is needed?

And, it turns out, in every single year starting in 2006, the majority, or at least plurality, have said they wished they had a third choice. (Of course, they do have third and fourth choices, but the question asks whether they believe a “third major party” is needed? And the majority/plurality has said, for 13 straight years, yes please, we’d like more meaningful options..

Some years, the question has produced a pretty close outcome, but since 2013, when by an impressive 60-26 percent margin “a third major party is needed” triumphed, that answer has won by a significant margin every year. In 2017, the “more choices please” answer reached its highest number ever, 61 percent, but that answer has been preferred by a margin of 19 points or more every year since 2013.

I wouldn’t want to make too much of it. It’s just a poll question, and we can’t cross-examine it to ask what bothers the majority about their current choices and what kind of other choices they might like to have.

And even if this is a sturdy feeling, it’s not clear to me how our rigidly duopolistic system could or would be changed to accommodate this desire. And we should note that there are third and fourth parties, and at least two of them, the Greens and the Libertarians, do have at least a presidential ticket most recent cycles, and they have never come anywhere near the obvious major status of the Big Two.

But I, at least, take the sturdy majority in favor of more choices as a meaningful suggestion that many of us aren’t satisfied with the choices that have been on offer.

Here’s Gallup’s full writeup with a graphic showing the ups and downs on the question.

Many other electoral systems offer a larger number of realistic choices to voters than ours does. There are a lot of examples we could pursue if we were really open to change.

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Comments (50)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2018 - 09:13 am.

    This is why “populist” were so popular back in 2016. Both parties have failed to provide competent leadership for decades. The failure of the duopoly has been increasingly obvious for decades but it really came into focus with the Great Recession.

    We always complain about all the people who don’t vote but the fact is when people go to the polls they want someone the want to vote for on the ballot.

  2. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 11/01/2018 - 09:26 am.

    I guess part of the question is where on the political spectrum would a 3rd major party fit. There is a right to far right party – the Republicans. There is a broad center to center left party the Democrats. That leaves a gap on the left – but I really wonder where that would go in the USA.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/01/2018 - 10:34 am.

      Colin, we have a centrist party (Republicans) and an extreme leftist party (Democrats). But that’s not a good way to describe them. Both want massive govt. they just want their own take on it. Democrats want full on Socialism if not outright Communism. Republican want to keep the Oligarchy in place.

      I’d rather see no parties at all. Just people stating their platforms/positions and ideologies. Once you let political parties to form then you get all the crazy antics from them.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2018 - 01:17 pm.

        The Republicans centrists and the Democrats are far leftists? Ha!

      • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 11/01/2018 - 02:00 pm.

        Are you serious? Have you lived anywhere but the US. In any other country the Republican’s would be to the right of center and many hard right. Are you really saying the Democrats have similar policies and positions to Labor under Jeremy Corbyn or Canada’s NDP or France’s socialist party?

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/01/2018 - 08:23 pm.

        I guess Mr. Barnes has never met a real Communist or even a real Socialist, or else he would realize that neither Communists nor Socialists consider the Democrats to be “comrades.”

        Even Bernie Sanders, the farthest left national political figure, is only in FDR territory politically. The mainstream of the Democratic Party is now in Nixon and Eisenhower territory, and today’s Republicans would probably reject someone with Ronald Reagan’s politics.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 01:23 pm.

          Sorry Karen but that is a flawed opinion. The Democrats have moved so far left they embrace full on Socialism now. JFK would be considered right wing to the party today. Eisenhower was the last actual Conservative President. But again, the left/right chatter is a waste of time. Everyone has their own definition of those 2 words. The better way to look at it is where they stand on size of government or govt control. When you do that, both parties are for big govt. they just differ in the minor details is all.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2018 - 02:07 pm.

            The basic principle of Socialism is state ownership of the means of production. Even Bernie Sanders, who’s well to the left of the Democratic party does not advocate this.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/04/2018 - 05:37 pm.

            “JFK would be considered right wing to the party today.” If he espoused now only the policies he espoused then, yes, he would. What this cliche ignores is the fact that JFK (and FDR before him) was quite lefty for his day. He was not a socialist by any stretch of the imagination, but in 1962, thinking that “Negroes” should have a right to live wherever they wanted or to be served in any public accommodation was considered quite liberal.

            Of course, as with any historical figure, we have no way of knowing what his opinions would be if he were alive today.

      • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 11/03/2018 - 11:44 am.

        I can always tell when someone has a seat on the Jones/Hannity/Ingraham train when I read comments like yours.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/02/2018 - 11:00 am.

      Consider the possibility that the political spectrum is not best described solely in the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. On scale I’ve seen adds a 2nd dimension to reflect authoritarian vs anarchy in the up, down with the traditional socio-economic left-right axis. For example you have libertatian no-government types who celebrate the system’s inequality as just rewards for hard work; or the anarchists who think destroying the system will promote collective equality. Authoritarian communists want strict gov’t control & distribution of wealth; vs more aristocratic types who want gov’t to enforce social order, giving control to the wealthy & a docile labor force / underclass.

      Despite the common rhetoric & straw man arguments, our current system doesn’t approach any of these extremes.

  3. Submitted by David Moseman on 11/01/2018 - 09:43 am.

    There are several reasons to get a third or more parties on the ballot.
    If the two party system forces them to be opposite sides of the same policy then we will never have true other options.

    Trump’s election can be seen as offering a third option to those who have not voted in the past. Multiple viable presidential candidates would force us away from the Us and Them elections we now have.

    Thus, I will vote for Paula Overby for Senate.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/01/2018 - 10:17 am.

    America has the parties (and politicians) we deserve.

    We can change things, or we can just shut up and accept the status quo.

    As Yoda said, there is no try.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/01/2018 - 10:29 am.

    Sorry, not looking for a 3rd party, looking for some common sense people that aren’t locked into their own personal idealism. I don’t need another rock head that can’t move off their personal platform so to speak. Dean Phillips nailed it, we need to start talking and come up with the best overall solution, which may not be my personal favorite solution. There are over 235M potential voters in America, which means there are an equal number of potential opinions on any given subject or derivation there of. So breaking it down to 3 possible choices vs 2, i.e. my way, your way or the not much of an improvement, in my humble opinion. .

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/01/2018 - 10:42 am.

    “Coalition” is an interesting, even valuable, concept, but one that American voters – many of them confirmed creatures of habit – appear to shy away from. There have certainly been times when I’d have preferred some other candidate (occasionally, almost ANY other candidate) than the Republicrats I see on the ballot. I HAVE voted for 3rd-party candidates in the past, and – who knows? – may do so again at some point in the future for some office, but right now, a 3rd-party vote still feels to me like either a wasted vote, or a vote that helps the least palatable candidate defeat the only slightly-more-palatable candidate, thus annoying me even further.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/01/2018 - 01:05 pm.

      Coalition governments are a feature of parliamentary systems. Even there, you often up with small extremist parties becoming kingmakers and dictation policies unpopular with the majority. You can see that happening in Israel where Netanyahu has been pushed to the right by the small religious parties necessary to keep his coalition in power. Similar things are happening in Germany and Britain.
      I’d rather clean up our system by doing away with the Electoral College and downgrading the Senate to something like the House of Lords in Britain.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/01/2018 - 10:04 pm.


        You do realize that the EC is the only thing that gives low population states any say in elections right? Without it, the big population states would be the one electing Presidents and states like Montana, ND, SD, Kansas, etc would be almost completely ignored during every Presidential election. Talk about disenfranchising voters.

        As for the Senate, just repeal the 17th Amendment. The Founders created our system so that the people had the House to represent them (which is why all spending bills are supposed to originate there) and the States would be represented by the Senate. The 17th was one of the worst acts by our govt since the founding of this nation. The States are no longer represented in the federal Congress.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2018 - 02:11 pm.

          The Electoral College gives voters in small states more influence on the outcome of elections than the citizens of large states.
          If we eliminated the EC and had a true national election, everyone’s vote would count the same.
          And if you read your history, the Constitution limited the vote to rich white male landowners. Are you sure that you’d qualify?
          Most citizens would not.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2018 - 02:17 pm.

            The original Constitutional statement on Senators:
            “1. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, [chosen by the Legislature thereof,] {Altered by 17th Amendment} for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”
            It does not state how Senators will be chosen, meaning that each State could use a different method. Sounds like a train wreck to me.

            • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 08:20 pm.

              “It does not state how Senators will be chosen, meaning that each State could use a different method. Sounds like a train wreck to me.” —- I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. The State would be the one picking Senators so that the State would be represented in DC. That’s how it was supposed to be. The people represented in the House and the States represented in the Senate. After the 17th, now the people are represented in both while the States aren’t represented at all.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2018 - 09:05 am.

                I suggest that you read the history of the Articles of Confederation, which gave the States more autonomy than the current Constitution. It was abandoned as a train wreck, partly because it did not allow Washington to raise an army, but left him dependent oin state-controlled militias.

                • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/04/2018 - 04:55 pm.

                  I have read it. It was a far superior document because it prevented a large/powerful central govt. Jefferson preferred it to the Constitution.

                  The US is supposed to be 50 independent laboratories of ideas. We have moved far from that with an all powerful central govt (which is what Hamilton wanted and why he was the worst of the Founding Fathers IMO).

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 08:18 pm.

            Not everyone’s vote would count the same because candidates wouldn’t campaign in low population states. So they wouldn’t be as informed or touted as those in large population states. California alone would negate the votes in numerous smaller states so candidates would only have to campaign in California instead of traveling all over to lesser populated states.

            As for land owners voting, it might not be a bad idea to go back to that. At least then those who actually do vote have skin in the game. Those who don’t own land or don’t make a lot of money will always vote for whatever will get them more govt handouts. But no worries, the welfare crowd is so large now that no such change would ever be possible.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/04/2018 - 05:40 pm.

              “Not everyone’s vote would count the same because candidates wouldn’t campaign in low population states.” So what? States are arbitrary geographical delineations, and a legacy of European colonialism and mercantalism. What is wrong with having everyone’s vote count the same, regardless of what state they love in?

              “So they wouldn’t be as informed or touted as those in large population states. ” Ever been to a campaign rally? I don’t care what party or candidate puts it on, a rally is not an informative event.

            • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/06/2018 - 04:40 pm.

              Do you really believe that candidates pay any attention to small states NOW? They pay attention to New Hampshire and Iowa, because those states go first in the winnowing process, but after that, they act as if they have decided that most small states are safely in the bag for one party or the other.

              Instead, they invest the bulk of their time and money in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado and in shoring up their leads in the states where their party dominates. Democrats don’t spend a lot of time in Utah, and Republicans don’t spend a lot of time in Massachusetts. Instead, both candidates criss-cross Ohio endlessly.

              That’s now. In a popular vote system, everyone’s vote everywhere would count. Candidates would have no idea where the winning votes would come from. In a close race, we might not know the results until Alaska and Hawaii voted, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not as if the new president needs to report to work the next day.

              And really, Mr. Barnes, only property owners should vote? That question was settled some time around 1830, and your assertion that non-owners will just vote for “free stuff” makes you sound like an anti-Chartist British aristocrat.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/02/2018 - 03:37 pm.

          Utter nonsense. It absolutely would not mean that big states would determine elections. It would mean only that everyone’s vote, regardless of their state, counts the same

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/02/2018 - 05:07 pm.

            The Electoral College perpetuates the myth of “red states” and “blue states.” In fact, all states are purple, but the EC disenfranchises people who are not of the dominant party.

            If you’re a Republican in Hawaii or a Democrat in Utah, you may as well not vote for president, because the electoral votes in your state are going to go the other way. An all-popular vote is more of a motivation for people whose party is the minority in their state to vote.

            Another side effect of the EC is that it is theoretically possible to win the presidency by winning only the geographical half of the country. In a popular vote, a close election may mean that we don’t know who has won until Alaska and Hawaii (two states with small populations and opposite political tendencies) have cast their ballots.

            Claims that “with a popular vote the cities will determine the outcome” or “with a popular vote the large states will determine the outcome” are simple-minded, because they ignore the fact that all states and all cities contain adherents of both parties. I live in a very DFL neighborhood, but even here, I see scattered yard signs promoting Republican candidates.

            The fact is that most Americans live in cities or suburbs. The rural areas contain a decreasing portion of the nation’s population. Rural residents are an essential part of the nation’s economy, but their living in the country or in a small town does not make them any more authentic or virtuous than city dwellers or suburbanites. I lived in a small town for seven years, so I have some first-hand knowledge here.

            Nowadays, the real America is urban and suburban. The people who live in these areas deserve to have their votes count as much as those of residents of the Dakotas. The red states cover more territory, but acreage doesn’t vote.

            • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 08:30 pm.


              You are incorrect. Almost all states are red if you ignore the major cities. Go look at a map of how people have voted and you’ll see that almost the entire Country is red with blue spots where each major city is. Take MN for example, outstate is deep red and has been for a very long time. But that is offset by the Twin Cities Metro area where it’s quite blue.

              Here is a map of how Counties voted in 2016:

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2018 - 09:08 am.

                People vote, not counties. Two thirds of the population of Minnesota lives in urban areas. This is generally true for the country as a whole. What you’re talking about is disenfranchising the populations of cities (and of course we know who that is).

          • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 08:25 pm.


            That is patently false. The Founders debated this thoroughly. Here is some info on it “A third idea was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a “favorite son” from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones. ”

            The rest is here:

            If candidates only campaign in large population states, the people in smaller states are much less informed about candidates thus their votes aren’t “equal” to those voters in large population states.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2018 - 09:09 am.

              Of course, it not longer takes a week for information to travel between states.

              • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/04/2018 - 05:00 pm.

                Of course it doesn’t. But that doesn’t change the facts of the comment. It would be a complete waste of time for a candidate to hold a rally or campaign in a town of 5,000 or a state that has a very small population. It would be far more effective to spend almost all of their time getting the word out in places like Los Angeles, NYC, Chicago and states like CA, NY, FL, TX, IL etc. You would go where the population is most dense. Thus ignoring low population states.

                The EC is basically the only thing keeping us from a pure democracy aka mob rule.

                • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/09/2018 - 10:21 pm.

                  Well that’s exactly what the candidates do now, do most of their campaigning in the large states. They utterly ignore the states with few electoral votes.

  7. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 11/01/2018 - 11:45 am.

    Western Europe does have proportional representation after a Party reaches a threshold (5% in Germany, for one), so it is far easier for 3rd and 4th voices to be heard. But the same contempt with the historical major parties here is now showing there in the rapid rise of the Greens, and also far-right immigrant-hating parties. Of course, our RepubliCrats are no more likely to open the door for such choice in who represents us than turkeys are for Thanksgiving.
    From the Guardian on 10/29/18 about Regional elections in Hesse, the German state centered on Frankfurt. The CDU is the center-right party of Premier Angela Merkel, the SPD is the center left Social Democrats. They have dominated German politics for 70 years.

    “The Hesse result follows a similar pattern to the one in Bavaria two weeks earlier and the federal election of September last year, with centre parties losing votes to radical alternatives of all kinds. On Sunday one in five of Hesse’s voters deserted the CDU and the SPD. The CDU’s result was its worst in Hesse since 1966; the SPD’s its worst there since 1946. The corollary of the weakened centre was a Green surge on the left – the Greens have been the CDU’s junior coalition partner in Hesse since 2013 – and an anti-immigrant AFD surge on the right, while the smaller liberal FDP and the leftwing Linke party both posted modest gains too. The upshot is further fragmentation of Germany’s old two-party system.

    The crisis for the SPD is arguably more profound than the one that faces the CDU. Having failed to mount an effective defence of key parts of Germany’s postwar social settlement in the 1990s, and lacking a political narrative that speaks to and for a new generation of precarious low-wage workers in an era of global labour mobility, the SPD is unsurprisingly continuing to suffer for its role as Mrs Merkel’s grudging coalition partner. As a result, Europe’s historically most important centre-left party is now looking into the same oblivion into which once mighty sister parties in France, Greece and the Netherlands have already fallen. Grassroots pressure to emulate [UK] Labour’s turn to the left in Britain is certain to grow. The politics of Germany, so stable for so long, are now full of uncertainties that will resonate far beyond Berlin.”

    ‘Lacking a political narrative that speaks to and for a new generation of precarious low-wage workers in an era of global labour mobility’ sounds very familiar to the failure of the Democrats to engage those left behind in our society, even as the Republicans harden and widen the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.

  8. Submitted by Roy Everson on 11/01/2018 - 02:08 pm.

    There is an opening for Republicans who are utterly disgusted by their president eventually seeing the stain of bigotry and racism and misogyny isn’t going away. John Kasich seems the most likely to lead a new third party effort.

  9. Submitted by Greg Smith on 11/01/2018 - 02:16 pm.

    Without a change to the electoral college, a 3rd party presidential candidate winning enough states to deny a a majority of electoral votes to any candidate would be possible, in theory at least.
    then the election would be thrown open to the House.
    Watching everyone’s head explode would be entertaining, I suppose.

  10. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 11/01/2018 - 03:25 pm.

    Good read, except for the clause “if the Gallupers know how to take a poll.” Still too raw for those who remember the multiple compound polling fiascoes of 2016. Better to say something like “polls aren’t a reliable predictor of much of anything, but here’s some interesting food for thought.:

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/01/2018 - 06:58 pm.

      Actually, the polls predicted the voting results (the behavior of the voters) quite accurately. What they missed on (and I’m not sure they even tried) was the behavior of the Electors, who were not even known at the time of most of the polling. Trump’s key state wins were within the margin of error of the polls. The polls did what they were supposed to do: predict the likelihood of certain outcomes.

  11. Submitted by Eric Saathoff on 11/01/2018 - 08:23 pm.

    The biggest threat to a 3rd party is the candidate you don’t want elected. If a whole bunch of lefties want to go Green they will be splitting the vote against a Republican candidate they really don’t want to win. We aren’t going to see third parties grow at the same time on the right and the left in a way that balances out. This business is too cut throat to “throw away” a vote.

    However, I think the best chance for third parties is Ranked Choice Voting. There is no vote splitting. I think a third party won’t start on the presidential level. It will start with local, smaller offices, and build its way up.

  12. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/01/2018 - 10:20 pm.

    There was a way in this country for candidates of other than the two major parties to be elected, but Republicans outlawed it (most states anyway): fusion politics. I first learned of it from a Strib piece from David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-reliance and it became a Minnesota issue back in the Nineties when the New Party tried something similar and were stopped cold like such all such outlaws should be ;-).

    In a nutshell, many smaller parties were able to ‘fuse’ with one of the dominant parties by either endorsing their candidate or vice versa to defeat the other dominant party.

    You gotta love a smaller party with a long history of winning via plurality by keeping people from voting or, failing in that, keeping them from voting for whom they really wish to win: it is a kind of disgusting genius. That is the heritage of the GOP along with all the good they did way back when and off and on since (mostly if not all, off now), but I hope and strongly suspect they have reached the end with and through Donald John Trump.

    We’ll find out after Tuesday’s election, I hope, although perhaps the GOP can change back to what they were before the whole system became totally corrupted in the first Gilded Age to Clinton’s ‘third way’ when Democrats began to emulate some of their less desirable features and finally to our New Gilded Age.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2018 - 10:13 am.

    I’ve voted for third Party candidate many times. The only time I’ve ever felt like I through my vote away was when I’ve voted for crappy Democratic candidates that lost, instead of voting for a third Party Candidate that actually represented my perspective.

  14. Submitted by John Evans on 11/02/2018 - 10:31 am.

    Since no constitutional change is on the horizon, we seem to be stuck with a two-party structure, in which the two players keep changing their positions in response to each other, and to avoid losing percentage points to third parties that spring up on their fringes.

    My question then is whether Ranked Choice or Instant Runoff Voting implemented at the state level, in elections for federal offices, would create more satisfying, empowering experience for the disaffected voter. Our oddly low voter turnout rates should suggest that we need some structural adjustments.

  15. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/02/2018 - 09:00 pm.

    The only way a third party could ever emerge in the USA is if the two parties would agree to create one and also agree to a mutual “hands off” noninterference rule to guarantee its independence. Maybe a fourth or fifth party could be launched in this way too. Both parties could be mutually advantaged by having their “extremists” unloaded in this way. Or in maybe segmenting their different “interest groups” in a way that would give them each legitimate roles at the table without giving them majority power.

    I’m not saying it’s ever going to happen. In fact, I can see a lot of reasons why the futile and self-defeating struggle for power between two partisan parties might never come to such an agreement. But it would be worth considering given the division in the country today.

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/05/2018 - 07:55 am.

    Minnesotans want different choice. The problem is that there just aren’t very many choices are different. The reality is always if you want stuff, you have to pay for it. And we do want stuff.

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