Despite dissatisfaction with Washington, don't bet on a third party coming to the rescue

Given the public’s frustration with Washington, it’s not surprising that a third-party option has become increasingly popular with the American public.

Indeed, the latest NBC News/Wall-Street Journal poll shows that 30 percent of voters would pick an independent or third-party candidate in a three-way field also featuring a Democrat and Republican -- up five points from when this question was last asked in 2010. What’s more, that 30 percent for the third-party is greater than what the generic Republican candidate gets in the poll (28 percent).

“Everybody has been watching the train wreck that has been going on in Congress,” said David Collison, chairman of the Reform Party. “But the most dissatisfied are saying the things that we have been saying for 25 years. It’s chickens coming home to roost.”

The Reform Party grew out of third-party candidate Ross Perot’s presidential bids, in which he received 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent four years later. Still, the Reform Party doesn’t hold any major offices, though Collison said there was an increase in interest during the 2012 election, and that he expects to see more attention in 2014.

But a third party winning office -- or even getting attention -- won’t be easy, political scientists and analysts say.

“There’s zero chance of seeing a strong third party,” said Nolan McCarty, professor of politics and public affairs and associate dean at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “The most important reason is that our entire electoral system is designed to make it difficult for third parties to be successful.”

Most elections are considered “first past the post” contests, whereby individual candidates compete in single-member districts and the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. Third-party candidates have a harder time in these elections, McCarty says, because they have to win a large number of votes to receive any representation in Congress, unlike a proportional system of representation.

A second challenge is that it’s not clear that dissatisfied voters want the same third party.

“Some people want a more conservative party. Some people want a more liberal party. And some people are looking for something else entirely,” McCarty explained.

Even those who describe themselves as independents are often aligned with either the Republican or Democratic parties, added Candice Nelson, professor of government and the academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Only a small percentage of people are true independents.

“As we know from survey research, people say they want a third party without any real understanding of how that would work,” she said. “Another question would be, ‘Would you join a specific third party?’ My guess it that you’d get a very different answer.”

Others say there are better ways to approach the dysfunction in Washington. No Labels is a political advocacy group that seeks to promote bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems through building a new coalition of “problem-solvers.”

“We don’t have time to wait 50 years for the creation of a new party,” said Nancy Jacobson, who co-founded the organization with former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon. “It’s all about working with what you have.”

Peter Ackerman, who helped found the organization Americans Elect, said the last thing the country needs is another party. Americans Elect -- which sought to nominate a presidential ticket featuring candidates from different parties -- had to shut down after it was unable to conduct a successful ballot.

“A party is in conflict with the country,” Ackerman said. “It’s in the Republicans’ and Democrats’ best interest to enforce the status quo with laws that limit the playing field, which ultimately hurts the American people.”

But Princeton’s McCarty said it’s still possible for a third party to make a difference. There have been movements in American history whose popularity forces one of the two mainstream parties to reposition itself, such as the Populist movement in the late 19th century. The conservative Tea Party is another example.

Collison says that’s also the Reform Party’s goal for the midterm elections.

“We don’t expect to win the majority in Congress,” he says. “We just want a handful of moderate individuals that could serve as a swing vote to encourage a pragmatic discussion of the issues…because we can’t continue going down this path.”