Why there’s no centrist third party in the US

With the national political parties and their loyalists growing more polarized, you’d think there would be an opening for a moderate third party to split the difference and become a force in American politics.

But it hasn’t happened, and it isn’t likely to happen. Indiana University political scientist Edward Carmines and two co-authors explain why in a recent paper.

Edward Carmines

Edward Carmines

The problem, they argue, is that the political center is every bit as fragmented as the rest of the electorate. It includes three distinct groups: moderates, who hew to the center on most questions; libertarians, who are conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues; and populists, who are liberal on economic issues and conservative on social issues.

A third party or a charismatic independent will occasionally pick off nonaligned voters — as H. Ross Perot did in 1992, primarily by appealing to libertarians. But it’s almost impossible for a centrist party or candidate to adopt positions that appeal to such diverse groups of voters.

At the same time, the fractured center could be contributing to party polarization. Moderates, libertarians and populists may identify as Republicans or Democrats, but they aren’t as loyal or motivated as the conservatives who are the GOP base or the liberals who drive the Democratic Party. So it’s hard for either party to make inroads with voters in the middle.

If Republicans soften their stand on social issues to win votes from libertarians, they risk losing support from populists and from their conservative base. If Democrats adopt a more populist message, they could alienate liberals and libertarians on issues like abortion and marriage equality.

“Parties are by nature risk-adverse organizations and as such, they are tightly moored to the status quo,” the paper says. “Only under the most extreme circumstances — for parties, that means repeated losses at the polls — do they adopt changes in their electoral strategy. Thus, as long as both parties can plausibly convince themselves that their ideological appeals are not responsible for their electoral defeats, they will avoid making any fundamental changes in their basic strategies.”

Carmines and his co-authors, Michael J. Ensley of Kent State University and Michael W. Wagner of the University of Wisconsin, presented their paper last month at the State of the Parties Conference: 2012 and Beyond, at the University of Akron. Their findings were featured this week in a New York Times guest column by Columbia University journalism professor Tom Edsall.

The researchers pulled data from the American National Election Studies in presidential election years from 1972 to 2012. Respondents were placed in one of the five political categories based on their responses. In 2012, 19 percent were classified as liberals, 27 percent conservatives, 21 percent moderates, 22 percent libertarians and 11 percent populists.

But while liberals and conservatives made up less than half the electorate, the parties relied on their turnout and enthusiasm — making it very difficult for either Democrats or Republicans to expand their appeal beyond their core supporters.

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