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So You Want To Start a Third Party?

Then tell me how you are going to attract real-world Trump voters.
July 29, 2022
So You Want To Start a Third Party?
(Composite / Photos: Shutterstock)

Starting a new third party is all the rage these days, especially out here in Never Trumpistan.

The Yang Gang is teaming up with some future former Republicans for the Forward Party. Rich people have burned given power couple Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobson $50 million to try and make a No Labels ticket happen. My friend Juleanna Glover made a (fairly serious) case for a Jon Stewart candidacy. Say the phrase “unity ticket” and clap three times and Bill Kristol might show up in your living room. The third party question is raised at all my book-tour stops. (Coming to a city near you!) And it is the subtext of every conversation with a lonely, politically homeless soul wondering What Are We Going to Do.

During the Trump era I have often been the rain cloud that washes away the luminescent longings of the third-party dreamers, which isn’t a job I enjoy since many are friends or mentors or folks whose courage in the face of Trumpism I deeply admire.

But I soldier on anyway. Trying to convince them they are actually Red Dog Democrats. Or explaining why their idea might accidentally bring about a fascism even though they have nice arms and nicer intentions.

But given the boom cycle of new parties, clearly that message is not getting through. So today I wanted to offer another exercise.

I want to focus on the positive for a change! Be supportive!

Let’s imagine that I did share the passion for a third party and wanted to offer guidance on how it might achieve success.

What would be the necessary ingredients to make this new party something that might conceivably work as a political entity, not a networking club for sad people longing to find a political home?

The way I see it there are two basic steps for determining viability for a new party in the Trump era.

Step One: Answer this question: Does your party offer something that will attract a substantial portion of real-world Trump voters? 

This might seem obvious, but I think it is important to spell out.

For a new party to win national elections, it would have to attract voters from both of the two major parties. To give you a baseline, in 1992 Ross Perot took 17 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats according to the exit polls. That still left him well short of taking even a single electoral vote.

If the new third party you are creating isn’t capable of garnering a greater chunk from both existing parties than Perot did, it isn’t going to work. And if it pulls overwhelmingly from one party with only a small percentage coming from the other party then it isn’t really a third party at all, but a faction of the first party. As such it will either cannibalize or displace that party’s vote. And we wouldn’t want to do that if the party we are cannibalizing is the only thing standing between us and an insane madman who is an existential threat to the nation. (A third party which cannibalized the authoritarian-curious party might be okay. But that’s not what any of my friends are talking about.)

Given that this is such an important part of the process, I think we should pressure-test this question a little bit.

Everyone thinks they can attract disaffected voters from both sides. They hear from them constantly! Nobody’s happy! Right?

Back in 2019 I received a few phone calls from rich guys and influential consultants thinking about various third-party runs, especially when it seemed as if Sanders or Warren might be the Democratic nominee. In each case I listened to their pitch and then told them that their message would not appeal to the median Republican but instead was uniquely attractive to other rich globalists at the club who don’t like taxes or AOC, but other than that, had very little in common with real-world Trump voters. As a result, their effort was likely to attract very few Trump voters but had the potential to win over a significant share of people who might otherwise have voted for the Democrat. Not good.

So in order to make sure that this new party can pass step one, let’s take a look at the profile of the voter it will have to attract. Who are they? And who are they not?

  • They are NOT people who voted for Evan McMullin in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020: This should be self-evident based on the “real-world Trump voter” language that is right there in the question but it is necessary to be specific on this point since it seems as if most of the people pushing for a third party fit into this category. These voters are Democrats for all practical purposes, but some of them don’t want to admit it. I get it! Democrats can be annoying. Changing identities is hard. I wrote a book about it! But no matter what these folks want to call themselves, they are Biden voters, not Trump voters. And they are not sufficient for the creation of a new party.
  • They are NOT the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but not in 2020: I realize this is a tautology but just want to be extra-certain you are following me here. People who did not vote for Trump in 2020 are not Trump voters.
  • They ARE people who actually like Donald Trump: Now this is going to be a tough one for some people to stomach. Trump voters like Trump. He consistently had a 90+ percent approval rating among Republicans during his presidency. In 2020, exit polls showed nearly all of those who voted for him viewed him favorably. Appealing to the tiny percentage of Trump voters who don’t really like Donald Trump is critical in a two-way general election but far, far short of the Perot baseline that is the minimum required to be anywhere close to viable in a three-way race.
  • They ARE people who are in lock-step with Fox & Friends in the right-wing culture war: This is critical. The preponderance of Trump voters support “Don’t Say Gay” and the Big Beautiful Wall; share the flabby-armed former president’s antipathy towards transgender athletes participating in women’s supports; thought DeSantis did a heckuva job on COVID; do not trust anyone who wants to take their guns; are still mad at Colin Kaepernick; and will be repulsed if you let your kid pick their own pronouns. Within the party there remains a very small minority of college-educated, wealthy Republicans who are aligned on economic issues while maintaining only a light antipathy towards the progressive elites based on what they have read on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Picking off this group alone does not get you to the 17 percent Perot baseline.

In review, the voters you need to attract:

Now lets move to step two:

Step Two: Answer this question again: Does your party offer something that will attract a substantial portion of real-world Trump voters? 

As it turns out I lied when I said there was a two-part test. It is really only a one-part test but it’s so daunting that I wanted to give it a little bit of time to settle in the ol’ brainy brain.

Given what we know about Trump voters, what would a party that passes this test look like? It’s clear that an organization that only includes Andrew Yang and a bunch of squishy Never Trumpers doesn’t fit the bill. They fall squarely in category one—people who are in the Biden coalition, but don’t want to identify that way.

So who might that group team up with in order to pass our two-part test?

The names that come immediately to mind share one trait. They all appeal to Trumpers because liberals find them problematic (hence the Third Party Paradox in These Polarized Times).

Here are some of those names: Joe Rogan, Dave Portnoy, Dave Chappelle. These guys are all entertainers who have audiences that include real-world Trump supporters, as well as people in the Biden coalition.

A Morning Consult poll showed that 46 percent of Rogan “fans” were Republican, while 23 percent were Democrats. Among “non-fans” the numbers were basically reversed. That’s about the profile you would want if you were a Never Trumper looking to partner with someone who might be viable as a third-party candidate, but would pull more from Trump than the Democratic nominee if things went south.

So. . . how does the Rogan presidency sound?

Among existing politicians, it’s pretty hard to find someone who would fit this bill. Anti-Trump Republicans are out. So, the closest I can come up with would be the one and only Broadway Joe Manchin. He has consistently maintained an approval between 40 percent and 60 percent among both Republicans and Democrats, waxing and waning based on whom he angered last.

There are a lot of things about Manchin’s candidate skills that would make him a terrible presidential contender. But he’s about right for the type of ideological profile you’re looking for: An anti-PC, lib-triggering, economic populist who wants to stick it to the bankers is the ballpark of what might conceivably work. Forgive me for presuming, but Manchin is not generally the person people seem to have in mind when they ask me for a moderate who can win in the Tattered Cover queue.

But that’s the point of this exercise right? Trying to identify a candidate that could marshal a coalition that could conceivably win? Even if you can’t always get what you want?

Given the nature of the threat, I would hope so. That’s why I’m here to help!

Otherwise . . . what would the point be?

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.