The current popularity of the Democrat and Republican Parties is well below 50 percent, and plunging. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 26 percent of Americans are satisfied with the two-party political system and that 60 percent of Americans believe a third political party is needed. Gridlock has enveloped the Beltway and Americans continue to complain ad nauseam about having to vote for the lesser of two evils. So why is it so hard for a Third Party or Independent candidate to get elected to office? How does the contemporary political duopoly manage to maintain electoral hegemony despite the growing discontent among the body politic?
The short answer is "psychology." Whenever a third party candidate appears on the ballot, the campaign of the candidate who will be most impaired by a vote for that third-party candidate goes into action, predictably claiming that a vote for the third-party candidate is a wasted vote, or a vote for the other major party candidate. By employing the "Wasted Vote Syndrome" strategy, the two major parties are effectively telling voters to eschew their conscience and vote for the candidate they find least objectionable. They are in effect dictating to voters that they should look at the roster of candidates and choose from "only" the two major party nominees.
To achieve this rhetorical brainwashing, the two parties employ the hypnotic technique of "repetition," continuing to repeat the message and inculcating it in the minds of voters until the voters decide that they must come to their senses and vote for a candidate from one of the two major parties even if that means holding their nose while casting their ballot. Third Party and Independent candidates are put on the political defensive by the competitors from the two major parties, causing them to spend an inordinate amount of time defending their very existence, and having to make the case that a vote for them is not in fact a wasted vote.
There is an easy cure for this Wasted Vote Syndrome. States could institute an "instant runoff" voting system whereby voters rank all candidates based on their preference. The candidate with the fewest first place votes would subsequently be dropped and the voters' second choice replaces the first choice of those who placed him/her first. This process is then repeated until two candidates remain standing. Under this system every voter could vote his or her conscience. However, since the two major parties control all of the State legislatures, there is absolutely no incentive to institute this alternative voting system.
Beyond that, the best way to respond to the attempted brainwashing by the two parties is for a charismatic disgruntled presidential candidate to emerge who has been part of the political duopoly. This would have to be an anti-politician politician. In addition, the candidate would have a herculean task of getting on the ballot in all 50 states. To the chagrin of Third Party and Independent candidates, most states have a multiplicity of impediments to keep interlopers from ballot status.
For a Third Party or Independent to actually win the presidency, he/she would have the unenviable task of winning an outright majority of 270 votes in the Electoral College in a race with two major opponents. If the candidate wins a mere plurality, the election would be decided in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by the powerful political duopoly.
The Third Party or Independent candidate would have to cultivate support in the vast wasteland of American Politics: "The Center." Third Party and Independent candidates cannot become formidable by appealing only to a narrow ideological agenda. They must accrue voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote for the Democrat or Republican nominee, as well as appeal to many Independents and non-voters. A far-left or a far-right third party would serve only to split the vote with the established center-left Democratic Party or the established center-right Republican Party, thus electing the other major political party to office.
The archetype for a successful Independent candidacy was that of billionaire industrialist Ross Perot in 1992. Having founded Data Systems and Perot Systems, Perot mustered significant name recognition. In 1992, there was a similar distrust with the American political system. Perot was actually leading in the polls before dropping out. He later reentered the race and was still able to secure 18.9 percent of the national popular vote. However, Perot failed to capture a single state. Perot's message was an atypical amalgamation of fiscal austerity, economic nationalism and an aversion toward foreign entanglements. His ideological formula would probably work well today. Perot focused on the proliferating national deficit and national debt, appealing to fiscally conservative Democrats who had supported former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas (D-MA) in the Democratic Primaries. Perot also appealed to those who supported the insurrectionist candidacies of former California Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) and Republican activist Pat Buchanan by opposing NAFTA and the outmigration of American jobs overseas. Furthermore, Perot's opposition to the Gulf War appealed to non-interventionists of both parties.
Realistically, it would take a tidal wave of both disaffected voters and non-voters alike to consolidate around a candidate and for that candidate to win an outright majority in the Electoral College. It would be easier to conduct a bottom-up approach, whereby Independent and Third Party candidates run for seats in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, where a simple plurality would constitute victory. A recent poll conducted by Esquire Magazine and NBC News found that the majority of Americans are centrists: They are fiscally conservative, but support a social safety net and the legalization of marijuana. They also support secular-based government and they soundly reject the U.S. playing the role of the world's policemen.
Accordingly, a Third Party could rally around providing a distinct and appealing alternative to the duopoly. This alternative party could stand for reigning in the federal budget deficit in a way that does not radically alter the federal social safety net. Moreover, unlike the two major parties, the Third Party could emphasize legalizing marijuana and liquidating America's military Empire abroad. Both of these positions are popular with the American people, and are not being advocated by the two major parties. The issue of non-intervention could strike a resonant chord in that as we saw with the near U.S. attack on Syria (averted only by a deal engineered by Russian President Vladimir Putin), a huge majority of Americans opposed such an invasion, yet much of the establishment of both major parties supported a military intervention.
Of course, a successful Third Party is a tall task in American politics. Since the inception of the strong two-party system, American politics has maintained a duopoly which is rarely challenged for electoral supremacy. However, every once in a while a Third Party or Independent candidate will challenge the system, make a redoubtable electoral showing at the Presidential level, then fade back into the electoral sunset.
It is sheer electoral brilliance that the two major parties, even at their low popularity watermarks, can manipulate the political system and convince the voters that they should not vote for anyone not associated with the two major political parties. Despite a desire on the part of the American electorate for a serious challenge to the political duopoly, invariably there is a gravitational pull that drives voters back to the parochial confines of the two major political parties.