Here we go again: the false hope, or in some cases fear, of a massive crack-up of the two major parties, with third- and fourth- and maybe more-party candidates running viable races for the presidency.
It’s not going to happen.
This time, it’s Ron Fournier who reports on insiders who envision the parties breaking apart. In the world of Fournier and his sources, “social change and a disillusioned electorate threaten the entire two-party system.” The result could be Rand Paul and a regular Republican both landing on the ballot in November 2016—and if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run, perhaps a Democratic splintering as well.
As Brendan Nyhan documents, we've heard all of this before (and Fournier is a specialist). I won't say it's impossible that we'll get a "serious" third-party candidate in one of the next few presidential cycles, but it's not likely, and to the larger point, the parties are most certainly not cracking up. To the contrary: The Democratic and Republican Parties are unusually strong right now, which is why politics is so polarized.
If anything, significant third-party runs, in which a candidate seemed to have at least a solid chance at either winning electoral votes or getting at least 10 percent of the national vote, appear to be ebbing. They showed up in 1948, 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996, but not since then.
Third-party runs are usually an effect of an unpopular president running for re-election; that accounts more or less for each of those postwar cases, although the incumbent in 1968 dropped out and the incumbent in 1996 wound up much more popular by election day than he had been earlier in the cycle. By that pattern, we could easily have had significant third-party runs in 2004 and especially 2012 (since Barack Obama entered his re-election year with approval ratings under 50 percent), but it didn't happen.
The logic behind the timing of third-party runs is pretty straightforward. When an incumbent president is popular and running for another term—think Ronald Reagan in 1984—most loosely attached voters will vote for the incumbent; the hard-core opposition, naturally, votes for its candidate. If, however, the incumbent is unpopular, then those loosely attached voters are up for grabs. Think about 1992, when George H.W. Bush was unpopular. Most swing voters had supported him over a Democrat in 1988 (since, after all, he won solidly in that year) so switching to the Democrats would be, in a sense, admitting they made a mistake. Voting for Ross Perot (or, early in the cycle, planning to vote for Perot) might be more like switching to something newly available.
Nor can disgruntled voters do much in the presidential primaries. Even if the incumbent president is challenged, as George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were, he’s unlikely to lose or to give significant policy concessions to the faction supporting the challenger. After the primaries are over, those who supported the primary challenge may for a time be open to a third party. They’ll usually wind up switching back to the party they are normally attached to, and third-party candidates fade, but in the meantime it’s a source of at least ephemeral third-party support.
In 2016, however, with no incumbent on the ballot, that logic doesn’t hold. Both parties appear to be on equal footing, and usually put up reasonably strong candidates—and the nomination process tends to work out whatever divisions exist within the parties.
More generally, the GOP and Democratic parties appear to be quite healthy. It's worth noting at the local level, even a successful independent run usually only demonstrates how strong the parties really are. That certainly seems to be the story with Angus King's independent run for the Senate from Maine in 2012. King, as he began his independent run, appeared to be wildly popular and a real threat to win. So the party closest to his positions—the Democrats—essentially absorbed him, abandoning their own candidate. When he arrived in the Senate, he wound up caucusing with the Democrats. Odds are he’ll wind up being hard to distinguish from the rest of the Democratic caucus as long as he remains in the Senate, just like independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sure, he may have more room to take idiosyncratic positions on some policy issues, but that’s about it.
At any rate, while rogue candidates remain possible, the parties as a whole are strong; in fact, over the last 30 or so years the parties have expanded to fill up more and more of the political space of the nation—not less. The partisan press now competes and sometimes eclipses the old neutral press; partisan think tanks and other party-oriented policy makers are far more prominent now than in the midcentury era in which neutral expertise was valued by both parties; and of course in Congress partisan polarization is at record highs. Voters still report hating the parties, but they vote more like partisans now than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. Those are not signs of a coming party crack-up.
Certainly, the parties have their problems, and individual decisions matter quite a bit when it comes to third party runs, and are inherently difficult or impossible to predict. Yes, a zillionaire could always jump in; yes, it’s always possible that a losing faction in one of the parties could run a spoiler campaign, despite all the incentives not to that usually hold. Overall, however, there’s really no reason to believe that third parties are going to be any more successful in the next decade than they have been for the last two. Even if pundits and even some practitioners always see it coming.