Rethinking the nucleus for a viable third party

It seems like when most reformers and new centrists think about how to locate a viable third party on the ideological spectrum, they start with the concept that it needs to be based on finding the goldilocks location of economic ideology. I also thought that putting off dealing with social issues would remove the “hot button” that destroyed all possible alliances between voters who could potentially agree on well thought out fair and mainstream government economic and regulatory policy.

But now I think that’s not just wrong, but 180 degrees off.

About a year ago the Independent Party of Oregon leadership debated about expanding its platform beyond a strong election campaign and government reform message. We decided to adopt planks on education, the environment (including a social justice environmental plank) and health care. While we were concerned that we’d alienate the reform minded voters who made up much of our membership, what we found instead was that our new planks were welcomed by almost all our membership and I think enhanced the IPO in the eyes of skeptical voters who claimed the IPO didn’t stand for anything or was a one issue party.

Recently I saw an article by Lee Drutman of the Voter Study Group dissecting the differences between Hillary Clinton voters and Donald Trump voters. This is the graph that particularly caught my eye.

From: Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. 2017

While there is a wide difference between voters on social issues, there is much less difference on economic issues. If all those dots just dropped to the bottom of the scale, they’d be piled up as moderately liberal economically.

Below, using the scatter graph I’ve determined the deltas between the two centers of the Democratic and Republican voters on economic and social issues. On social issues It’s so far apart it appears you can never find a goldilocks spot.

This graph seems to support the belief of many grass roots independents that the key to building an independent/centrist/moderate coalition is to focus on what unites voters. But here’s the problem. The delta on social issues between Clinton and Trump voters is huge. Avoiding social issues doesn’t mean that voters’ concerns over social issues disappear. It just means that a third party voting alliance based only on economic issues is weak and distrustful because social issues don’t go away just because you can agree on economic issues. That means the key to building a third center of gravity, from which a new party may spring, is actually to find that goldilocks spot on social issues.

While that may seem impossible, that could also be because the Democratic and Republican activists refuse to consider allowing their parties to adopt moderate social positions. While some of their candidates are avowed social moderates, they are merely tolerated within the parties as necessary evils in tough districts.

Here is the same scatter graph showing the voting centers for Republicans and Democrats, the midpoint between those centers, and line showing the coordinates that are equidistance between those points. Those are the points where a new third party could logically be centered (no pun intended).

These scatter plots also explain why the “socially liberal fiscally conservative” argument for third party ideology fails. Check out that lower right quadrant. There are very few voters there.

But here are some logical starting points for a third party.

These spots fall between the midpoint of the Clinton and Trump voters on the economic scale, assuring that most voters will accept the third party’s economic message and show at least where the midpoint of where a new party would need to be on social issues to be equally attractive to Democratic and Republican voters alike. Also note that every one of these possible centers has a fair number of Democratic voters and Republican voters.

It appears that if a third party is willing to embrace a moderate social policy platform, it will have no problems attracting a large number of voters who also have moderately liberal economic preferences – since that’s where most voters already reside.

While this scatter plot doesn’t show many social moderates as compared to those with more extreme social views, that could be largely the doing of the parties themselves as they condition voters to believe that there are only binary choices on social issues. And the extremes that police the Republican and Democratic social agendas will vilify or ridicule new moderated social positions of course, but those aren’t the potential members of the new center in any event.

Admittedly this begs the question, what are moderate and widely accept policy positions on immigration, abortion, LBGTQA, voting rights and other non economic issues? That’s a tough question in some cases but answering it and planting the flag there is what can create a new gravity center for a new party, movement, or organization.


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