A new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California says 59 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents - and, overall, 64 percent of likely voters - agreed with the statement that America’s two main parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” For those following the Golden State’s deep-blue politics who may find this surprising, here’s how John Myers of the Los Angeles Times put it in perspective:
Lest you think this level of disgust is more deeply ingrained in one subset of California voters, consider this: Even though Democrats in the state are the ones railing against the agenda of President Trump and Republicans in Washington, they slightly trail their GOP neighbors in being fed up with the two-party system.
This desire for a third option may seem hard to square with our era of either-or tribal politics - my side is always right, your side is always wrong. But this hankering for something new is nothing new. In the last 45 years, third-party or independent candidates have managed to win governor’s races twice in both Alaska and Maine and once in Minnesota, Rhode Island and Connecticut. And in a Gallup Poll five months before the 1992 presidential election, third-party candidate Ross Perot even had a clear lead over Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Perot nabbed a still-healthy 19 percent of the November vote - despite a gaffe-strewn campaign that included him accusing the Bush campaign of “scheming to smear his daughter with a computer-altered photograph and to disrupt her wedding,” according to a report in The New York Times, and also included Perot repeatedly referring to “you people” in a speech to the NAACP.
There’s also the phenomenon of celebrity candidates winning elections despite policy views at odds with their parties. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood background, social liberalism and history of marijuana use didn’t make him seem much like a Republican, but he was easily elected governor of California in the 2003 recall of Gray Davis, trouncing state Sen. Tom McClintock - a pure GOP stalwart. Then there’s businessman Donald Trump, who won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016 after a campaign in which he disavowed traditional GOP calls to cut entitlement spending and give tax breaks to billionaires (views that have changed, obviously, since he reached the White House).
So is there a sweet spot in American politics just waiting to be filled? Maybe. In 2004, in one of his best pieces ever in The New Yorker, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell told a story with interesting parallels. Gladwell wrote about Howard Moskowitz, a marketing wizard who didn’t believe consumers “know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist.” Moskowitz was hired by Campbell Soup Co. to boost its Prego spaghetti sauce in its war for market dominance with Ragú. Working with food scientists, he came up with 45 types of spaghetti sauce “designed to differ in every conceivable way: spiciness, sweetness, tartness, saltiness, thickness, aroma, mouth feel, cost of ingredients and so forth.” Campbell eventually took some his prototypes on the road and had 100 people in four cities eat and rate up to 10 small bowls of different spaghetti sauces. Gladwell wrote:
When Moskowitz charted the results, he saw that everyone had a slightly different definition of what a perfect spaghetti sauce tasted like. If you sifted carefully through the data, though, you could find patterns, and Moskowitz learned that most people’s preferences fell into one of three broad groups: plain, spicy and extra-chunky, and of those three the last was the most important.
Why? Because at the time there was no extra-chunky spaghetti sauce in the supermarket. Over the next decade, that new category proved to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Prego. “We all said, ’Wow!’ “ Monica Wood, who was then the head of market research for Campbell’s, recalls. “Here there was this third segment - people who liked their spaghetti sauce with lots of stuff in it - and it was completely untapped. So in about 1989-90 we launched Prego extra-chunky. It was extraordinarily successful.”
Might there be a third such option for voters? An anecdotal and statistical case can be built that yes, there is. Politicians who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal - so long as they have a credible background, decent communication skills and the ability to raise funds or self-fund a campaign - could strike a chord with one-third of voters, and maybe far more.
Two of the candidates I’ve already mentioned fit this libertarian lite profile. Perot, the tech billionaire who got a higher percentage of the vote than any third-party candidate in 80 years with his 1992 run, was a deficit hawk who was pro-choice on abortion and supported gay rights. Schwarzenegger was an apostle of free-market capitalism who liked to quote Milton Friedman, but he staked out liberal stances on abortion and gay rights - on some issues “sounding more like a Democrat than a Republican,” according to a 2003 CNN story during the recall campaign. A case could also be made that tech billionaire Michael Bloomberg - a former Democrat who was elected mayor of New York twice as a Republican and then to a third term as an independent - falls in this sweet spot of politics.
Polling shows social liberals are increasing in America, reaching a new high of 31 percent, according to a Gallup Poll from earlier this year. But another Gallup survey from 2015 shows there are more than twice as many fiscal conservatives (39 percent) as fiscal liberals (19 percent). No tidy Venn diagrams are available showing how many libertarian lites there are, but the phenomenon is significant enough that it’s already being assailed by liberal critics.
Here’s what Huffington Post writer Jess Coleman had to say in 2015:
As public support has rapidly shifted on issues such as same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization - the so-called “social issues” - we’ve seen a major rise in the “social liberal, fiscal conservative.” But I’m not buying it. This contortion is nothing more than a red herring . . (What) the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” person is really saying is: “I support the plight of the marginalized, so long as I don’t have to do anything about it.”
Harvard Crimson writer Megan O. Corrigan had a similar take that same year:
(The) “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” catchphrase indicates commitment to liberalism only when it does not cost money. . But what about women’s access to paid-for daycare and maternity leave? What about health care for the poor, housing for the homeless, treatment programs for addicts and access to good public education for every child? The idea that these policies are fiscal rather than social is absurd.
Coleman and Corrigan make a strong point. But calling people who are fiscally conservatives and socially liberal hard-hearted isn’t likely to win them over.
And maybe, just maybe, in 2020, these Americans and the rest of the electorate will get the Prego extra-chunky option in the presidential race in the form of an independent bid by tech billionaire-reality TV star-NBA owner Mark Cuban. Earlier this year he told Vice that he was “socially liberal, fiscally conservative and proudly independent” in an interview - days after telling the Washington Post that he wasn’t interested in running for president, but “sometimes you got to do what you got to do.”
Do it, Mark, do it. As the Prego marketing genius suggested, voters can’t know what they desire if what they desire does not yet exist.
Chris Reed, who has pined for libertarianism to be relevant for decades, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org