Robert F. Kennedy Jr is polling higher than prior third party candidates and his supporters could make the difference in a close election. Americans say they want a third party, but is this what they had in mind? Jonathan Cervas finds that in 2020, third parties actually took more potential votes from Republicans than Democrats. Victor Wu finds that lots of Americans say they want a third party. But most partisans seeking third options clearly favor their side’s issue positions. There’s not much of a constituency for a grand unity ticket in the middle. 

Guests: Jonathan Cervas, Carnegie Melon University; Victor Wu, Stanford University

Studies:Why Donald Trump Should Be a Fervent Advocate of Using Ranked-Choice Voting in 2024”; “Disaffected partisans who want a third party are just as polarized.”


Matt Grossmann: When third parties matter, this week on The Science of Politics for the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is polling higher than prior third party candidates and his supporters could make the difference in a close election. Americans say they want a third party, but is this what they had in mind? Do we know whether Biden or Trump will be more hurt by a strong Kennedy performance? Can we reform our way to third parties or are they a hollow hope? This week, I talked to Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon University about his PS article with Bernie Grofman why Donald Trump should be a fervent advocate of using ranked choice voting in 2024. He finds that in 2020 third parties actually took more potential votes from Republicans than Democrats because of Libertarian performance. Democrats tend to assume they will be hurt by third party performance, but that is no guarantee.

I also talked to Victor Wu of Stanford University about his party politics article with Joseph Bafumi, Disaffected partisans who want a third party are just as polarized. He finds that lots of Americans say they want a third party, even supporters of the major parties. But most partisans seeking third options clearly favor their side’s issue positions and don’t stand out as moderates. There’s not much of a constituency for a grand unity ticket in the middle. They both say a close 2024 election means even small third party support could matter in critical states, but don’t expect third parties to be on the cusp of transforming American elections. Let’s start with Serviss who wondered why people assume third parties hurt Democrats. So tell us about the main findings from your article on the role of third party candidates in 2020.

Jonathan Cervas: So the main finding of this article is, or what we really wanted to emphasize, is that there’s this misconception that ranked choice voting benefits Democrats or liberals and it’s a disadvantage to Republican or conservative voters. If you look at the election in 2020 and you look at third party candidates and which third party candidates did well and who their preference would be had those candidates not been on a ballot, it’s very likely the case that Republicans would’ve benefited from ranked choice voting. In fact, Donald Trump would’ve almost certainly netted two additional states, Arizona and Georgia, had ranked choice voting been used in the 2020 election. Still would not have delivered him enough electors to win the 2020 election, but the finding of the paper is that it would’ve made the election much closer and to the benefit of Donald Trump.

Matt Grossmann: So give us some of the context from 2020. Why was the Libertarian candidate kind of emerging as the main third party alternative? Where were the candidates kind of on the ballot and how well did they do and kind of how did that differ from 2016?

Jonathan Cervas: Sure, the context can go all the way back to the year 2000, or maybe even before then. But in the year 2000, we have this extremely close election where Al Gore just barely loses to George Bush, particularly in the State of Florida by a margin of votes that was less than 600. People believed that Ralph Nader took votes away from Al Gore, and had his votes not gone to Ralph Nader and instead gone to Gore, Gore would have a presidential library instead of George W. Bush. So liberals who grew up during that time or came to age during that time sort of have long memories and think about spoilers in the sense that sometimes the candidate who wins the popular vote in a national election doesn’t win the electoral vote, and that you can attribute some of that to these third parties, Ralph Nader in 2000.

Then skipping ahead to 2016, Hillary Clinton’s going to lose the Electoral College while winning the popular vote, and many people believe that Jill Stein, a Green Party candidate, siphoned votes away from Clinton in key battleground states and that it cost her the election. That turns out to not be true probably. But in any case, liberals particularly sort of dread this idea that third party candidates are going to cost their candidate the election. So in 2020, you get kind of a different dynamic, and so liberals are fearful of a second Trump term in 2020. So what you see is an effort among, particularly among Democrats and Democratic activists to make it such that the Green Party candidate who many people believe would take votes away from Joe Biden was not going to appear on the ballot.

So the number of states in which the Green Party candidate appears in the ballot is significantly lower in 2020 than it was in 2016. Jill Stein, who was the Green Party candidate in 2016, was on the ballot in all but three states. But in 2020, the Green Party candidate Hawkins missed the ballot in 22 states. So there was a very big change in the potential for third party spoiler effect in 2020, significantly lower for the Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Matt Grossmann: Yeah, so I mean, in some sense this is kind of reasonable that the liberals kind of have this history and are still mad at Ralph Nader, but on the other hand, the Libertarian Party has been the most successful third party consistently for a while and would seem to be pretty consistently taking more votes from the Republican party. So why doesn’t it get that same kind of attention as a potential spoiler?

Jonathan Cervas: Yeah, that’s a good question. Why the Libertarians who are relatively more successful than the Green Party doesn’t get the attention of spoiling elections for Republicans. I think that the reason is is because there are no recent examples or maybe even historical examples ever of the Libertarian Party actually spoiling elections for Republicans. Whereas there are some potential realistic possibilities that Green Party or other third parties have spoiled for the Democrats. So Democratic voters are particularly sensitive to this because it is the Democrats who have lost the Electoral College even though they won the popular vote in 2000 and 2016, and that isn’t the case for Republicans.

So hypothetically, you could imagine that if Donald Trump were to win the popular vote in 2024 and then lose the Electoral College because of a spoiler effect of maybe a third party, either Libertarian or maybe RFK Jr. or some other candidate that might emerge between now and election day, that it would be Republican voters who would be susceptible to the sort of… Yeah, I’m losing my word here. They would be concerned about the spoiler effect or concerned about the Electoral College and its ability to translate votes into victories. So I think it’s just a historical coincidence that the Electoral College inversions have benefited Republicans and not Democrats. But it also is true that there are several near misses for an inversion that operates in the opposite way.

2004 is a great example of this. John Kerry very likely could have with very small changes in votes in places like Ohio won the Electoral College, became president in 2004, while not securing a popular vote majority. So had history been slightly different, you might see different effects. But I also want to return to your point about Libertarians being successful as a third party. But the truth is that they’re not particularly successful because they have not earned any Electoral College votes ever and they currently hold zero seats in Congress. I don’t know that they hold any seats in state legislatures. If they do, it’s not very many and they certainly don’t have majorities in any legislative body anywhere in the country.

So a third party success is actually pretty weak in the United States. There are very few examples of third parties having success, and historically, when third parties become successful in subsequent elections, they are sort of evaporated into the other two parties. Very classic finding in political science of Duverger’s law. It’s the closest thing I would say we have to actual law in political science.

Matt Grossmann: So you make some assumptions about the second choice preferences of Libertarian voters being the same in 2016 and 2020. I guess how realistic do you think that is and is there any sign that it would change? Donald Trump has just accepted an invitation to speak at the Libertarian Convention, and there’s some interest in the extent to which that will matter.

Jonathan Cervas: Well, so the idea that Libertarian voters are more conservative I think historically is true. The reason for this is because most voters are making their choices based on economic concerns and not cultural concerns. The Libertarian Party is conservative on economics and they’re socially liberal. So if people are making their vote choices based on the economic dimension, Libertarian voters are going to be more likely to choose the major party who’s conservative on economic issues, which happens to be the Republican party in 2024. So I did not know about this breaking news that Donald Trump was going to speak to the Libertarian Convention, but it makes a lot of sense. Those voters are more likely to vote for Donald Trump.

Now, that’s speaking from this idea that economics is still going to be the major cleavage line in the United States, and that also may not be true in 2024. It also may not have been true in 2020. It’s hard to sort of get at these underlying preferences of the voters because it’s hard to contact voters. It’s hard to get people to think about these issues. It’s hard to get surveys that are reflective, that are representative nationally, et cetera, et cetera. There’s lots of reasons why it would be difficult to sort of gauge these things. Abortion has become sort of a lightning rod issue. I don’t have data in front of me, but I’d be willing to bet that Libertarian voters are more likely than most Republican voters to be pro-choice as opposed to pro-life.

That kind of issue may, if it is important enough to voters, may cause them to reject Donald Trump and instead choose Joe Biden. But it seems to me very unlikely that these voters who are disaffected by the parties would be making their choices on that and not the major cleavage line economics. But I’m happy to be proven wrong on that. It’s kind of this counterfactual that’s really hard to know. Ultimately, lots of people in America will say that they want a third party or they want to have more choice, but ultimately will cast a vote for one of the two major parties. We see that reflected in the fact that even when there are third party candidates on the ballot, they get very, very few votes.

Matt Grossmann: So this year there is even more interest in third party voting because the relative unpopularity of the two major party presidential nominees and RFK Jr. is currently doing somewhat well in the polls, certainly better than third party candidates have done in the last couple of elections. How much do you think the major party nominees should matter for this, and how does kind of RFK Jr. fit into what we should expect third party performance to look like?

Jonathan Cervas: Well, we’re sitting here in May, still five months away from the election or a little bit less than five months away from the election. I think the polls are probably not going to be very conclusive to what the final result’s going to be. I would expect that many people who are expressing dissatisfaction with both Joe Biden and Donald Trump will eventually realize that in the system that we have in the United States, that there really isn’t an option for a third party. most voters, if they’re willing to go cast a vote, will want their vote to actually be meaningful. So while there might be some protest to the two major parties, I don’t think it’s going to be larger than historical figures, so maybe 1 or 2, and at most 5% of the total popular vote going to third parties.

We also don’t know whether RFK Jr.’s people who are supporting him in the polls today are more or less likely to support Donald Trump or Joe Biden. He’s not a Libertarian in the same way as Gary Johnson was in 2020. His views are a little bit more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to figure out exactly where he lies on either economic or cultural dimensions. He’s sort of a little bit off kilter in that way. My sense is that he is an economic liberal, and culturally he has sort of mixed preferences. They don’t quite align with either Libertarians or the Greens. So it’s not exactly clear to me who the base of support is for RFK, and so it’s not exactly clear to me who his current supporters would support if not him. We don’t know yet how many states RFK Jr. or any other third party candidate is going to appear, how many states he’s going to appear on the ballot.

So it’s hard to judge whether it would have any effect on the ultimate outcome in any state. Part of the point of the paper that we wrote is that what matters in the Electoral College, at least in terms of spoiler effects, is the states that have the closest popular vote. So in 2020, the states that potentially could have flipped to Donald Trump were Arizona and Georgia, two of the very closest states. Alternatively, the state that was most likely that would flip the other direction would be Pennsylvania, or I guess it would flip in the same direction in this case. In 2016, it would be different. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly lost Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, and it’s only in those places in which these third parties are going to be potential spoilers. And so the number of battleground states in 2024 will matter for whether these third party candidates can win, how close the elections are, and what percentage of the entire statewide vote these third party candidates can get.

And so all these things are all conditional on each other. And so the idea that a RFK Jr. or some other candidate will spoil the election for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is a conditionally small probability. But that being said, the effect of a spoiler could be quite large because it can determine who is the president, and so it is definitely meaningful. And so there’s no doubt that these candidates are paying attention to these third party candidates. And I would strongly suspect that the legal teams for the major candidates will be working overtime to try to prevent RFK and others from appearing on the ballot altogether.

Matt Grossmann: It’s taken an interesting turn lately where, because RFK Jr. was running in the Democratic primary before, he has a famous Democratic last name, the assumption was that he would be a potential spoiler for Biden more than Trump. But of course he also has the anti-vaccine positions and the anti-institutional trust that we might associate with potential Trump voters. And so far polling that includes or does not include RFK Jr. really doesn’t show much of a consistent difference between the two major party candidates. So what do you make of the discussion so far in terms of his potential role as a spoiler or not, and how it compares to how we’ve thought about it in the past?

Jonathan Cervas: Well, it’s interesting. If you would’ve told me that RFK Jr. was running for president in 2016 and asked me who I thought he might spoil the election for, without a doubt I would say that he’d be more likely to spoil the election for the Democratic candidate, because in 2016 I would believe that those who are most likely to express anti-vaccine preferences would be liberals and not conservatives. But in 2020 something different happened. Donald Trump, while he was president, expressed some… even though he helped to initiate the CDC and others in creating the vaccine for COVID, expressed skepticism of that same vaccine in the future, and then caused his supporters to also have some distrust in government associated with vaccines.

And so in 2024, if you ask me who RFK Jr. is more likely to spoil the election for, you might think it would be Donald Trump because there are going to be more anti-vax voters among Republicans than there are among Democratic voters today. And so I think that’s a big change. And it really is the distinguishing part of RFK’s platform, is his anti-vax campaign. I remember RFK Jr. when I was in college. I actually met him when I was in college. He was on a book tour, and his book was about environmental policies. And so I remember him as being an environmentalist.

I’m not sure he can distinguish himself in that way from Joe Biden, and so I’m not sure he creates the kind of cleavage that would cause voters to want to vote for him based on that policy preference. So the only thing that I can find distinguishing about him is this anti-vax preference. And I think that will benefit or it will lead towards Republican voters more likely choosing RFK and then affecting Donald Trump’s ability to win the presidency, assuming that RFK is able to continue the campaign through the election, raise money, run ads, and get on the ballot in the places that are actually going to be pivotal.

It’s also noteworthy that RFK’s own family, you mentioned that he has a famous last name, the Kennedys, but his own family has endorsed Joe Biden and has rejected his campaign. So it’s not very useful to run on a famous last name if the family is saying that, “You shouldn’t be using our name that way.”

Matt Grossmann: So you note that the Democrats have been more supportive of ranked choice voting and electoral college reform, and that this might just be a historical accident based on who’s benefited from there. And there are some examples of… like in Alaska, I think Republicans have been more supportive of ranked choice voting, where the Libertarians are more of a threat. Supporting that realist view of political reform. On the other hand, Democrats do have a political reform constituency that is more in favor of these kinds of changes.

And another area recently where they’ve maintained their support is in all of these making voting easier reforms, even though, arguably, they’re becoming less of the beneficiary of increased turnout. So how much should we think about political reform as a, you do it to benefit your side and you get angry about the things that hurt your side, versus there’s one party that’s just more in favor of these institutional democratizing reforms?

Jonathan Cervas: Well, I’m not sure that Democrats being in favor of democracy reforms is really a truly underlying preference of the Democratic electorate. I really do think it is more reflective of the fact that Democrats feel like these reforms might benefit them. It’s for that very reason that I think there are Republican states around the country currently banning ranked choice voting. Literally banning it. Putting it in law that you cannot run elections using ranked choice voting. And if it were the case that Republicans believed that they would be benefited from ranked choice voting, or even if they thought it was neutral, I don’t think you would see these bans. But there is a public perception that reform benefits Democrats.

We see this in things like all mail-in voting, or even the ability to have absentee voting at all in any state. Donald Trump has been an outspoken critic of absentee ballots. And the belief, at least it appears the belief among him and his supporters is that that kind of reform hurts Republicans. Now, there’s no political science evidence that this is true, at least that I’m aware of. These kinds of voting reforms are all neutral to the parties.

Ranked choice voting, there’s no particular reason to believe that it benefits Democrats. It’s context-dependent. It depends on who the other candidates are and it matters what the underlying preferences of the electorate are. In some places it might benefit the Democrats in some elections, and in other places it might benefit Republicans in some elections. But you can’t know this a priori. You can’t know ahead of time whether these kinds of reforms are going to benefit one party or the other.

I think that’s true of any kind of turnout-boosting reform. The political science literature is somewhat unequivocal in the sense that it shows that turnout does not benefit either party. There’s a recent book, I think by John Aldridge and Daron Shaw. It’s called The Turnout Myth, and it makes that very point, that there’s this myth that increased turnout is going to benefit Democrats but historically, at least using empirical evidence, it just turns out to not be true.

Matt Grossmann: So the other interview for this episode is looking at public support for third parties and showing that it is very high. Even among people who are Republicans or Democrats, they profess to want a third party. And even when… no matter how you’re asked about it. On the other hand, they don’t really have anything in common. The third party-seeking voters from the Republican side and the Democratic side are mostly supporting their own party’s issue positions. So it’s not clear what the policy grounds is, at least, for a potential third party. What would you make of that in comparison to your findings of one party sometimes being a spoiler for a third party?

Jonathan Cervas: One interesting thing that has happened in this country is it’s kind of a contradiction in some ways. We have what appears to be increased political polarization and a separation between Democrats and Republicans. But on the other hand we have a rejection of both parties among the electorate. So the number of independents or those who are not choosing either Democrat or Republican is going up quite quickly and I think has now surpassed both parties in numbers of people who identify as either Democrat, Republican, or neither. But this is particularly pronounced among young people.

So young people are rejecting both political parties, yet we have an increase in political polarization. How can we square those two things? And I don’t know that I can do that. I do think it is a puzzle, an interesting puzzle. Part of it is that people reject the political parties but they don’t necessarily reject the politics. That even those who don’t have strong affect towards a party might still have strong ideology and therefore are more likely to choose one of the two parties based on their ideology, and leaving aside their affect for the political party.

And again, we really only have the two choices. And so as we get closer to election time, those who far away would really like to see the emergence of a third party will come to the realization that that never happened, that there’s no true choice, and therefore will come home to one of the two major political parties. It’s interesting. Among Democrats and among Republicans, one thing that we know from Mo Fiorina’s work is that the parties are more sorted. Democrats are more likely to be consistent in their ideology, more left, and Republicans are more consistent in their ideology, more conservative, more right.

And then the question is, what about the rise in these independents? What are they? And what we find in polling is that most of them, even if they don’t identify with a party, still lean towards one of the two parties and regularly vote with those parties at nearly the same rate as those who actually identify with the parties. What I don’t know is whether these voters are as extreme as those who express strong feelings towards a party or if they’re more moderate in their ideology.

I think that there’s some mixed evidence on this. I think it’s an open debate in political science. My strong feeling is that, if we were able to correctly measure people’s preferences, what we would find is that most people are apolitical. They don’t think about politics as much as maybe a political scientist might. And they would probably express more moderate views on most policy preferences than those who are heavily interested in politics. And so a lot of the people we’re talking about, who are expressing interested in a third party, are just not that interested in politics.

And so that lack of interest in politics translates to no affect towards the parties and then a willingness to answer that they’d be willing to vote for a third party in some random political poll. They get a phone call and they are asked about their preferences. They don’t really have them, and so I think it’s going to be more random. And almost certainly, if history is any guide, as we get closer to the election, people will become more clear on where the candidates stand and what their probability of winning are, and those who are less interested in politics will become more interested and form their opinions.

Of course this is a different kind of election than we’ve had in a very long time. Both of the candidates are known well in advance. We know who the candidates are well before the party conventions. We’re going to have debates in June, which is earlier than I think we’ve had them ever, or at least in modern elections. And voters are going to know who these candidates are. These are not unknown figures. Both of the two major party candidates are former presidents, or current president. And even RFK is a somewhat well-known person.

Matt Grossmann: So the usual explanation, as you mentioned, for America’s extraordinarily low level of third party success is institutional. We have a legislative electoral system and a presidential electoral system that are very unconducive to it. But some of this research might suggest that even if we change some of the rules, like implemented instant runoff voting everywhere, that it’s not going to make as much difference as we would expect because the party partisans are sorted into two competing ideological groupings. And so, even given an immense amount of institutional change, we might not achieve high levels of third party success. What do you think?

Jonathan Cervas: I think you’re right. I think it’s unlikely that something like ranked choice voting, as you suggest, will lead to some instantaneous ability for third parties to compete. We have some evidence of this. There is now two states that use ranked choice voting in congressional elections and federal elections, and thus far third parties have had no success in those elections. Those elections have always produced Democrats or Republican victors. Part of that is going to be, because it almost certainly has to do with the fact that Congress itself consists only of the two major parties. The independents that do exist in our Senate still caucus with one of the parties. And so there really aren’t avenues for third parties to find representation outside of the two parties. They still will have to associate with the major political parties, and therefore they still have to sort of organize even at the state level that way.

Matt Grossmann: So you’ve also studied electoral college effects, another institution that a lot of people want to reform that might not be reformed anytime soon. And you’ve found that 2016 and 2020 had extremely large partisan bias toward Republicans, although I think you also said that it really wasn’t all that long ago that electoral college effects might have benefited Democrats instead. So why were these such big benefits over the last two cycles, and is there any reason that it would change this time?

Jonathan Cervas: So I think it’s true that there is clear bias against Democrats in the electoral college. In 2016, it’s most evident because the winner of the popular vote, the national popular vote, did not win the election. Hillary Clinton was never president. And that is a clear sign that there is partisan bias. Now, historically, the electoral college is, in any particular election, it might have bias, but the size of that bias and the pattern of that bias, which party it benefits has changed. And as I mentioned in 2004, the electoral college actually benefited Democrats. And there are other recent elections in which the Democrats were benefited from the electoral college. The reason for these benefits, it’s a little bit in the nuance. It depends on which states are close and how many electoral college votes those states have. And that’s ultimately the bottom line. So a lot of times people believe that the bias in the electoral college comes from small states.

So every state, the electoral college is made up of the members of the house plus the members of the Senate plus three, four District of Columbia and the electors that come from the Senate members. So the 100 electors that are introduced from every state getting two is what people believe causes the bias. Now turns out to be not true. There are almost no, I think maybe one example of historic elections in which small states were determinative of who was going to win the electoral college. And reason for this is because small states are both Democrat and Republican and people forget this, the smallest states are those who only have one congressional district. So those are the ones that are most over-represented in the electoral college. Well, they include a mix. So Wyoming is the smallest state. It gets one elector, it gets three elector… Sorry, it gets one member of Congress and it gets three electoral college votes.

Well, so does Delaware. And Delaware is a Democratic state and so is Vermont. Those are both overwhelmingly Democratic states and they both get just three electoral college votes. And so the bias does not actually come from small states. And so there is a question about who the electoral college will benefit in the future. And so if we look at demographic trends across the country, we might assume that Republicans are going to have a greater benefit in the future because the states that are growing the most quickly are Republican states. So Florida is growing very quickly. Texas is growing very quickly. Idaho is growing very quickly. Arizona is growing very quickly, and those are all states that usually vote Republican. States that usually vote Democrat tend to be the ones that are losing population most quickly. So New York is losing population quickly. California’s population is not losing, but it’s become more gradual.

And so there’s a shift from sort of Democratic states into Republican states. But what is sort of missed there is that a lot of the people who are moving to these Republican states are Democrats from New York and California and other places. And so in the future, the electoral college may actually benefit Democrats again because those states might start the trend or already trending democratic. So the examples of that in 2020 are Georgia and Arizona, both classically Republican states that flipped in 2020 election. And there’s a pretty good possibility that those states will continue to vote Democratic in 2024 and 2028.

Moreover, Texas over the last several cycles is the state that’s moving most quickly towards the Democrats. In fact, if it keeps its historic pattern of change, we might see a Texas that turns blue as early as 2024, but not likely, but almost certainly by 2028, Texas could flip to the Democrats if the trends continue the way they have been going. Again, that’s a counterfactual hypothetical, we don’t know. But if that happens, if Texas flips to the Democrats, then we’re likely to see most of the bias against Democrats to disappear.

Matt Grossmann: So you’re also very involved in redistricting and there has been a pattern of geographic polarization that seems to be making it easier to gerrymander in favor of Republicans than to gerrymander in favor of Democrats or to if say, random maps are drawn randomly to make them be more likely to benefit Republicans because Democrats are more geographically concentrated than Republicans and some people attribute similar kinds of patterns to either electoral college bias or other kinds of institutional disadvantages of cities over other parts of the country. It sounds like you see it as a little bit less determinative than that.

Jonathan Cervas: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s… We’d have to look at the data, but there’s certainly the effect of this wasted votes idea that if Democrats are disproportionately in states where they win with very safe margins, then more Democratic votes are going to be wasted in a national election using a system like the electoral college. That’s especially true if Republican votes are sort of distributed in a different way. Now, I think that there is some effect of that certainly happening, but the effect of that is itself not completely true because of things like states like Texas where you have lots and lots of Republicans and there are plenty of states where the margin of victory for Republicans are just as high as the margin of victories for Democrats in other states.

Matt Grossmann: So what will you be watching for this cycle to see if things have changed?

Jonathan Cervas: I don’t think things are going to change that much. So one thing that I noticed in grad school, and I mean it’s not exactly an original finding, but I was writing a paper for one of my political [inaudible 00:37:57] hero, Gary Jacobson. I took his class at University of California, is the last class he ever taught, and he taught this really great class about using time series. And so the data I prepared was sort of looking at the inter-election swings across time in the electoral college. And so what you see is that prior to 1992, there’s this big swing at the state level where states you would not really know how one state was going to vote from what had happened in the previous election. In 1988 and 1984, you still kind of knew, but certainly in 1976, no idea. There’s this huge swings between states, between elections and I mean some of it’s just Southern realignment and other things going on.

But starting in 1992 and continuing on all the way to 2020, you see very little inter-election swing at the state level. What I mean by that is you can make strong predictions about how a state’s going to vote based on how the state voted in the prior election. And I think that that pattern is almost certainly going to be true and not just because you have the same two candidates on the ballot though, that certainly is going to be part of the effect unless all the sudden the electorate, and if you believe the polls, then maybe I’m completely dead wrong on this, the polls are sort of suggesting a revolution among the electorate where racial minorities are suddenly going to be voting for Republicans even though there’s no evidence in election results that this is happening. You see this in the polls, and so I’m very skeptical of any poll that tells me that black voters are going to support Republicans in 2024.

But what I think you’re going to see is that there’s a set of maybe 6 states, maybe 10 states, where the election really will hinge on and the campaigns are going to focus their efforts in those sets of states, Michigan and Pennsylvania included in those. And there’s not going to be a lot of difference between this election and the last election. Now, turnout might be different. I mean, we had very historic levels of turnout in 2020. I think, I don’t know if we’ll get to the same level as 2020. I strongly would suggest that we would have very high turnout again, because this is going to be a very high salient election. People are going to have extremely strong feelings about both candidates and there are more registered voters now than there was in 2016, in 2012, in 2008, in 2004, we registered, we meaning the country registered far more voters in 2020, and those voters are still registered to vote.

And what we know from the political science literature is that those who are most likely to vote are those who voted in the past. It’s a habit, it’s habitual. And so I think we’re going to have another really high turnout election and that it’s going to be extremely close and that the electoral bias that existed in 2020 probably will persist though maybe slightly reduced because the distribution of voters has slightly changed. But I think we’re going to see a pattern of continuity and not change in this election. But again, political scientists historically are not great predictors.

Matt Grossmann: So third party candidates can matter given electoral college dynamics. But why can’t they break out given how many Americans say they want a third party? Victor Wu says all of these potential supporters don’t really agree. Most are polarized along the same lines as all of us. So tell us about the main findings from your new article on disaffected partisans.

Victor Wu: Our main finding is that disaffected partisans who want a third party are just as polarized as there are non disaffected counterparts, meaning that across 14 different issues, Democrats who think a third party is needed never hold more conservative views than Democrats who don’t, they only hold more liberal views. Meanwhile, republicans who think a third party is needed generally hold similar views to Republicans who don’t. And so our new article offers evidence against this popular narrative that disaffected partisans tend to converge towards centrist or moderate policy positions. There have been a bunch of optimistic opinion articles with headlines like could 2024 be the year a third party candidate finally breaks through? But our new article provides evidence against this idea that a centrist third party can just come in and unify Democrats and Republicans because even Democrats and Republicans who think a third party is needed, remain polarized on various policy issues.

Matt Grossmann: So how many Americans say that they want a third party? How are those answers usually interpreted and how should they be interpreted?

Victor Wu: Well, perhaps surprisingly, most Americans nowadays say they think a third party is needed. And our study prior results from Gallup showing this. In terms of interpreting this express desire, that’s difficult because, well, first of all, respondents might be engaging in expressive responding where they say they think a third party is needed, but they don’t actually think that, instead they’re trying to signal something else by giving that answer. And second, even if these respondents do truly think a third party is needed, we definitely shouldn’t interpret this as signaling that they would actually take the more costly step of giving up their vote to a third party candidate, which is often how these polls are interpreted. Instead, we should interpret this express desire as signaling just general sentiments towards third parties and against existing two parties. But these sentiments should still be taken seriously because they could lead to spoiler effects where a third party candidate siphons votes away from the two main candidates.

Matt Grossmann: But we’re talking about a pretty big gap between people who vote for third parties maybe up to 5%, normally maybe as high as like 20% in 1992 with Ross Perot, but well over majority, I think in your data, who say they want a third party. So are they just unsatisfied with the current options or should we see it as really expressing a different thing when they say they want a third party versus actually voting for one?

Victor Wu: Yeah, I guess we won’t know for sure until the election actually happens, but I think just historically there’s been so many barriers to third parties achieving electoral success, and it’s possible that something has changed. And as these third parties, like No Labels or Forward suggest, Americans have just concretely changed their views. But I think Americans are aware that it’s very hard for third parties to win. And I think that awareness then leads them to also not take that costly step of actually giving up their vote to a third party candidate, even if they are willing in an online survey to say that they think that two parties are inadequate and a third party is needed.

Matt Grossmann: So you are mostly focused on what you call disaffected partisans, partisans who want a third party. But of course some people aren’t partisans, they’re independents. So tell us about the difference. Are independents more likely to want a third party, and where do they fair in terms of the share of the people who want a third party compared to the partisans?

Victor Wu: Yeah. We find that independents who want a third party are much more frequent than partisans who want a third party. But this is unsurprising because independents by definition aren’t affiliated with either of the two main parties. And the reason we focus on disaffected partisans is to gauge the likelihood of the spoiler effect, because independents can’t be siphoned from the Democratic or Republican parties, they’re already independents.

Matt Grossmann: So you look across 14 issue positions in each political party, and you’ve summarized the top line ideological findings. Were there any issue areas where the disaffected partisans did stand out?

Victor Wu: Well, so we find that disaffected democrats were more liberal on 5 out of 14 issues, defense spending, immigration, isolationism, abortion and gay marriage. On all other issues, they did not hold measurably different views from Democrats who don’t think a third party is needed. Whereas for Republicans, disaffected Republicans were more liberal on gay marriage, but more conservative on defunding the police and isolationism. And on all 11 other surveyed issues, they didn’t hold measurably different views from Republicans who don’t think a third party is needed. So overall, these disaffected partisans are expressing similar views as their non-disaffected counterparts.

Matt Grossmann: And it doesn’t sound like they stand out in a way that might be easily characterized, like their social conservatives but economic liberals or anything like that?

Victor Wu: No, no such pattern emerged. Although maybe they do differ in some way other than their policy preferences, which we don’t really measure.

Matt Grossmann: So the usual interpretation is that the US lacks more than two parties because of institutional constraints, primarily the electoral system. Obviously most countries in the world, democratic countries have more than two parties. Do you think your results are consistent with the view that it’s just institutional constraints holding back third parties, or do they suggest that we’re kind of too far gone in the two party to ideological alternative view to get third party success even if we reduce the institutional constraints?

Victor Wu: Well, to be clear, America already has a lot more than two parties. They just don’t achieve electoral success. There’s this nice Washington Post analysis article by Philip Bump about how there have proliferated dozens of third parties already. For example, in Pennsylvania alone, voters are registered with 30 different political parties. In terms of whether third parties would begin to achieve electoral success if the rules suddenly change I think that’s still unlikely because institutional constraints aren’t the only obstacle for third parties, although they are a massive one and one that’s probably insurmountable. Today the strength of Republican and democratic partisanship as social identities would be another big obstacle, even if the rule suddenly changed. Though, of course there’s disagreement about whether partisanship functions as an expressive social identity or just as an instrumental reflection of policy or ideological preferences.

Matt Grossmann: So you look at the issue positions of these different voters, but obviously we sometimes think that the issue positions come after the partisanship. So is it possible that you’ve articulated kind of a lack of existing third party issue positions, but that’s just kind of repeating that third parties haven’t had success? Let me put it more concretely. In the 1990s, it’s not like there was a huge constituency of people who cared a lot about the deficit and trade necessarily. But once Ross Perot had articulated those issues, his supporters came to take on those positions. So might we just be waiting for the successful third party to get a coherent set of aligned issue positions?

Victor Wu: Yeah, we tried to get at what policy positions partisans would adopt if given an alternative because our survey asked respondents which policy positions they would want their ideal third party to have. But this also gets to the deeper question of how people decide which policy positions to support in the first place. And there’s a massive literature on elite cues and how they shape public opinion formation. There’s lots of research showing that in a lot of areas people form their opinions on various issues based on signaling from their co-partisan elected officials.

Matt Grossmann: So this year obviously desires for a third party continue to be quite high. They have two very unpopular major party presidential nominees relative to past nominees and RFK Jr., one of the third party candidates seems to be doing fairly well in early polls compared to the last few elections. Given your findings, how much should the major party nominees themselves matter, and how should we think about how RFK Jr. is faring now?

Victor Wu: Well, the major party nominees definitely still matter the most, even though most Americans say they want a third party, there are many reasons again why they wouldn’t go out and actually give their vote to a third party candidate. In addition to all the institutional constraints on third party electoral success, our article shows that in practice it’ll be hard for third parties to come up with a set of policy positions that can siphon both Democratic and Republican voters.

But ultimately it might not matter that disaffected partisans remain polarized on policy issues, RFK Jr. and those like him might be able to get disaffected partisans to unite around this romanticized idea of an alternative to the status quo. So providing specific policy decisions might actually hurt third parties more than help them if their goal is to siphon from both the Republicans and the Democrats. Instead, they should probably follow in the footsteps of Forward and remain vague on controversial policy questions while just condemning the establishment and generally advocating for unity.

Matt Grossmann: I guess, should we give RFK a little bit more credit than that in that he’s not finding policy positions, but he is kind of finding dispositions, maybe things that aren’t usually on the policy spectrum, resistance to elites that might unify potential supporters? In other words, is there kind of a case for building a coalition out of sentiments rather than policy positions?

Victor Wu: Yeah, I think that would definitely be the strategy that he should take given the findings in my article. I mean, it seems very difficult to actually cohere Republicans and Democrats around a set of policy positions given that they remain so polarized. Instead, it’s probably more strategic for them to focus more on sentiments rather than policy.

Matt Grossmann: So some people have been surprised that at least so far, there’s not a clear partisan second place tilt to RFK Jr.’s supporters, or at least when you take him out of the polls they don’t necessarily change the standing between the two major parties in the same direction consistently. And usually that’s been interpreted as that there’s the Kennedy name and the previous association with the Democratic Party. And then there’s things like vaccine skepticism and anti-institutional focus that might draw in Trump supporters. Is that a reasonable analysis or would you put it a different way?

Victor Wu: I think that’s a plausible analysis for why RFK Jr. specifically wouldn’t create a spoiler effect effect in one direction more than another. I mean, in general, there’s lots of speculation on whether spoilers would be more likely to affect Republicans or Democrats. There’s this worry that a moderate independent third party candidate would split the vote in a way that causes Trump’s victory. Our study finds that Republicans, Democrats said a third party is needed at roughly equal rates, which suggests that desire for an alternative to the current two-party system isn’t more widespread in one party than the other.

Matt Grossmann: So you say that your findings might lean against the view that partisanship is a social identity compared to kind of a composite of viewpoints. So how did you reach that interpretation, and is there any sense that this is just new?

Victor Wu: Well, we find that most Americans agree with the statement the United States needs a viable third party that has a realistic chance of beating the Democrats and the Republicans. We also find that most Americans say that the Democratic and Republican parties do such a poor job that a third party is needed. So if partisanship functions as an expressive social identity, then maybe Republicans and Democrats should be less inclined to voice dissatisfaction with their political party. If they viewed their party as central to their own identity, then maybe their emotional attachment to their party would make them hesitant to claim that both parties are inadequate.

Matt Grossmann: So your research reminded me of some of the research on independent identification, which tends to find that independents often have a clear lean towards one political party or the other and don’t really stand out in policy terms. They stand out more in sort of wanting to signal a personality trait of openness or their own personal uniqueness, they think of themselves as separated from the social group. Is that part of what might be going on with this support for third parties, that some part of the population, even if they are normally on one side, just doesn’t like to think about themselves that way?

Victor Wu: Yeah, I mean, it depends on how the survey’s question is measuring support for third parties, but certainly I think it might indicate less emotional attachment to their actual party. Assuming we’re talking about disaffected partisans who are Democrats or Republicans, it might even indicate that partisanship operates differently for them than for other partisans. Maybe the expressive model makes sense for some Americans and the instrumental model makes sense for other Americans.

Matt Grossmann: So what should we be watching for this cycle for signs that things might have changed or that they’ll take their usual course?

Victor Wu: Well, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for interesting news on third parties, but so far it seems like things are taking their usual course. I mean, just last month No Labels announced that it was giving up its presidential campaigns, and I think it’s likely we’ll see other third parties kind of dropping off as it becomes clear that the two major parties will be the major site of contestation.

Matt Grossmann: There’s also always this persistent hope that there can be some sort of unity ticket with a partisan two different parties in the presidential and vice presidential position. Seems like your findings would pour cold water on the idea that that would help much.

Victor Wu: Yeah. Well, I think a unity ticket would have difficulty partisans around policy positions. But again, there’s always the chance that they could unite partisans around sentiments. I mean, the sentiment against a third party, I mean, so far we’ve kind of been speaking in a way where party support is primarily characterized by policy preferences. But, there’s this old article from 1996 saying that at their heart, third parties are expressions of discontent with the major parties. And I don’t think that’s really changed. So it’s possible that third party candidates might actually have different policy positions than disaffected partisans, but they could still create spoiler effects by remaining vague on policy and focusing more on criticizing the existing two parties.

And one other thing is we haven’t really talked about issue of salience. And if disaffected partisans are mostly single issue voters, maybe it doesn’t matter that they still diverge on other issues, a third party might be able to focus their messaging on that particular issue.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn.

The Science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmannn. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website. Can America Become a Multi-Party System? How the Tea Party Paved the way for Donald Trump. How Much Do Vice Presidential Running Mates Matter? When Information about Candidates Persuades Voters. When Partisanship Forms Our Identity.

Thanks to Jonathan Cervas and Victor Wu for joining me, please check out Why Donald Trump Should Be a Fervent Advocate of Using Ranked-Choice Voting in 2024 and Disaffected Partisans Who Want a Third Party are Just as Polarized. And then listen in next time.