By DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN
Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to run as an independent in Florida underscores an emerging issue in American politics – the crisis of confidence in the political system.
Anyone who has seen or attended a tea party rally knows the anger that exists.
Polling unambiguously shows that anger and distrust of Washington stretches across the ideological spectrum. Broad-based majorities view elected officials as self-serving, corrupt, fiscally irresponsible and out of touch, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Both parties’ polls have dropped.
Crist said it best, when explaining his decision to leave the GOP. He called it an “embracing of all the people.”
Crist’s words suggest what could fix this problem: the formation of a third party.
This new party must embrace all Americans’ concerns. It can do this drawing on the general disaffection with government — specifically to out-of-control spending and the burgeoning budget deficit and national debt.
In a certain sense, we already have a start in the tea party movement – despite the fact that virtually all its leadership rejects the idea of starting a new party, and few, if any, of its supporters call for one.
Nonetheless, as polling that Scott Rasmussen and I have done shows, 20 percent of the electorate say that they would support an unnamed tea party candidate for Congress this year. A similar number say that they would possibly support a tea party candidate for president in 2012.
Put another way, a tea party candidate for president or Congress might be within striking distance of the two major parties — even without organized efforts to establish a third party.
This is extraordinary in that the tea party movement is barely a year old, and a large number of Americans remain unfamiliar with it.
Indeed, some Rasmussen polling in December 2009 shows a tea party candidate in second place behind the Democratic candidate in a generic three-way congressional ballot test.
Make no mistake, the tea party movement is only one manifestation of the electorate’s desire for third party alternatives.
There are now at least three independent candidates running for governor in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island who all have at least a theoretical chance to win.
Recent polling by The New York Times shows that close to 50 percent of the electorate say that they would benefit from a third party; as do 40 percent of tea party supporters.
Pew Research Center polling data over the last 15 years has consistently shown that about half of the electorate wants a third major political party.
How can a third party succeed?
t must cut through the public distrust with a moderate, centrist platform that embraces common-sense policies that poll after poll show Americans want.
First on the agenda would be the addressing the fiscal crisis.
What the tea party movement reflects — and what the American electorate talks about — is the failure of the current system to address continuing fiscal and budgetary issues.
A third party that tackles the fiscal challenges in a constructive, nonpartisan manner could the American people’s trust. This means breaking away from the hardened ideologies of both parties to offer clear policies for creating jobs, cutting the deficit and ending wasteful entitlement programs.
To be clear, there would be no tea party movement if there was any serious effort by the Democrats or the Republicans to balance the budget, get spending under control and control the rising debt levels.
The systematic failure of the two major political parties to deal with these concerns is fuelling anger across the board.
This is why the tea party movement – which appeals largely, but not exclusively, to more conservative Republicans – has made clear that it is not aligned with any political party. Its supporters are as angry about out-of-control spending by George W. Bush’s Republican Party as they are by Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.
At other times in recent U.S. history, when there has been similar anger, we have seen viable third party presidential candidates who run on reducing the government, cutting spending and balancing the budget.
It occurred during the economic crises at the end of the Carter administration, and the end of the George H. W. Bush administration. First John Anderson in 1980, then Ross Perot in 1992, emerged as third party presidential candidates. They gained high levels of public support. Perot actually led for several months in the early stages of the 1992 campaign.
In the last 15 years, the American people have expressed a fairly consistent desire for a third party -–sentiments that transcend who may or may not run, or who actually does run on a third party presidential or statewide tickets.
Voters are looking for an alternative to the established parties. The big impediment to a third party, until now, has been the political elites’ efforts to keep alternative candidates off the ballot.
But unless we have the opportunity for a third party, this crisis of legitimacy can only get worse. And the risk to our system grows more perilous.
Douglas E. Schoen is a Democratic pollster and author of “Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two Party System.”
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