WASHINGTON – The accepted narrative regarding US politics is that the country today is far more polarized than it used to be. Based on polls and on the beliefs of candidates running for President, it would appear that the Democrats have become much more leftist, (so much so that “socialist” Bernie Sanders is doing better than expected in early political contests), while the Republicans definitely do not like moderate “Establishment” candidates. No, they want flame-throwing conservatives like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or populists like businessman Donald Trump.
A different story
Well, apparently this is not the real story. Or at least it is not the full story. Professional pollster Douglas Schoen, now working for former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a potential third party presidential candidate, (Why Mike Bloomberg Can Win, WSJ, February 4, 2016), citing Gallup data, tells quite a different story.
“Who is appealing to the center? Most Americans, the new silent majority, do not share the aims of the activist caucusgoers. The share of voters who identify as independents hit 43% last year, a new record according to Gallup. Only 26% were Republicans and 30% Democrats. Moreover, 60% of Americans told Gallup in September that the Republicans and Democrats “do such a poor job” representing them that they want to see a third major party emerge. That’s up from 40% when the question was first asked in 2003.” [bold added]
Most people want an alternative
Yes, the established political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are definitely much more polarized. However, fewer and fewer Americans like them. Indeed, assuming that this data is accurate, up to 60% of all Americans do not like the parties. That’s a majority!
According to Schoen, many more Americans than ever before call themselves “centrists”, and therefore have a hard time supporting the more ideological candidates in either party. Most Americans would like to vote for genuine problem solvers and consensus builders. But candidates with these credentials do not exist. The political atmosphere is highly partisan and very ideological.
A real centrist
So, if the Democrats and the Republicans fail to meet expectations, where can the centrists go? The obvious answer is that they could pick someone like Michael Bloomberg, a real centrist. Just like Donald Trump, Bloomberg is a successful businessman. But, unlike Trump, he is a genuine moderate. His did very well as Mayor of NYC. He can appeal to the “political middle” looking for sensible solutions as opposed to slogans.
Of course, Mr. Schoen has every interest in pointing out this shift. After all he is working for Bloomberg. And Bloomberg would have an opening and possibly a path to victory as third party candidate only if he could count on very substantial support from the uncommitted and (frustrated) middle. Schoen tells us that this middle exists, and that it is far larger than we thought.
If indeed up to 60% of all Americans are dissatisfied with the existing parties, there are enough votes there to get Bloomberg all the way to the White House.
Yes, may be so. But, in practice it is a lot more complicated than this. In order to vote for a third party candidate, the average American would have to feel quite disgusted with the available choices and would also have to believe that Mr. Bloomberg has a real chance.
Look, if at the end of the primaries season the choice were between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, then Bloomberg would have a real chance. But if the choice will be between Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, then the desire to vote for an independent may not be as strong.
A warning to the parties
Be that as it may, the Gallup polls results that Schoen cites in his WSJ op-ed piece are very important. Most Americans do not like the professional politicians seeking elective office. And most Americans are centrists who would like to vote for genuine problem solvers and consensus builders.
The heat of an unfolding national political campaign does not provide the relaxed atmosphere that induces reflection. But both Democrats and Republicans should think about all this. With their behavior they have created frustration and disaffection. They should regain their common sense.
If they do not, they should understand that they have opened a huge door for political changes outside their control.