Ten months from now, voters will go to the polls to elect members of Congress, governors of most states, and state legislators across the nation. Already, potential candidates are weighing the decision to run while others are soliciting donations, recruiting staff, collecting endorsements, and plotting strategies for winning party nominations and elections.
Nearly all of that activity occurs within the nomination processes of the two major parties. Independents are rare in American politics. In 2012, no non-major party candidate received even 1 percent of the vote. Ross Perot was supported by 19 percent of the electorate in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996, but since then no non-major party candidate has earned more than 1 percent of the vote, with the exception of Ralph Nader in 2000.
Despite the poor electoral performance of independents and third party candidates, Americans today more than ever want other alternatives to the two major parties. A Gallup poll conducted last October found 60 percent of Americans felt a third party was needed, the highest recorded response. Support for a third party has grown quite recently. A decade ago, only 40 percent of Americans wanted a third party.
Support for a third party reflects growing disenchantment with the two major parties. Favorability ratings for the two major parties are much lower than a decade ago. Today 42 percent of Americans view Democrats favorably, while only 32 percent feel the same way about Republicans. That might seem like good news for Democrats, but it actually is bad news for both parties. A decade ago, the Democrats had a 55 percent favorability rating, while Republicans had 49 percent.
The growing dislike of both parties may explain the rise in the number of Americans who consider themselves independents. Twenty-five years ago, 31 percent of voters called themselves independents. Today, 40 percent do so.
There are indications these trends away from the two major parties may be affecting elections. In the past decade, three states (Vermont, Connecticut and Maine) have elected independents as U.S. senators. One, Rhode Island, elected an independent as governor in 2010. And in 2009, Michael Bloomberg was re-elected mayor of New York as an independent.
This may affect upcoming elections as well. Former Republican U.S. Senator Larry Pressler recently announced he was running for the U.S. Senate again in South Dakota, but this time as an independent. And a former member of Congress from Alabama is weighing a bid for Congress as an independent.
No prominent politician has announced an independent bid for president, something that probably would need to occur this year to give a candidate time to build an organization and raise sufficient funds to be competitive in 2016. However, some politicians from both parties, such as Republican Jon Huntsman of Utah and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana have expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of their own parties. They could be potential independent or third party candidates.
Nevertheless, the hurdles for independents and third parties remain high. One example is Americans Elect, an organization designed to elect a 2012 presidential candidate separate from the two party system in a national online primary. The organization lacked prominent leadership, distinct policy issue differences with the two major parties, sufficient funding for a presidential bid, or a national organization necessary to build grassroots support for a presidential candidate. The result was disaster as the organization folded after it failed to even conduct its primary.
The two major parties still hold the allegiance of most voters. But the rumblings of the electorate, the growing popularity of independence over partisanship, and the potential availability of reasonable, attractive candidates may challenge that hegemony in the future. Both Democratic and Republican party officials and politicians would be wise to pay close attention to a disaffected electorate.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.