PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans divide evenly in a recent Gallup Poll on whether the two major political parties are adequately representing the public, or whether a third party is needed. That represents a shift from 2007, when a majority said the Democrats and Republicans were doing "such a poor job that a third major party is needed."
Gallup has asked this question since 2003, and over that time, the public's views on this matter have not been consistent. The first time it was asked, in October 2003, a majority opposed the idea of a third major party. Two separate polls from last year showed most Americans in favor of another party. This year's results are similar to what Gallup found in September 2006.
Not surprisingly, political independents are most likely to favor the emergence of a third major party, with 63% holding this view. In contrast, a majority of Democrats (56%) and Republicans (55%) think the two major parties are doing an adequate job and thus there is no need for another party that can compete with them.
The change in the balance of opinion since 2007 from favoring a third major party to dividing evenly on this question is largely because of a shift in Democrats' attitudes. Last September, Democrats favored a third party by 53% to 43% -- nearly the mirror image of this year's result, which finds just 38% in favor and 56% opposed. It is not clear why the shift has occurred, but throughout this presidential election year, Gallup polling has found Democrats highly engaged in the election and expressing heightened enthusiasm about voting.
Republicans' attitudes are virtually unchanged from September of last year, when 57% supported the current party structure and 40% wanted a third option. Independents are slightly less likely to favor a third party this year (63%) than they were last year (72%).
Beyond the political differences seen by party affiliation in attitudes toward a third party, there are fairly consistent differences by political ideology that help reveal what sort of third party Americans would most like to see.
Gallup has typically found self-identified liberals to be the most likely ideological group to say a third party is needed. Even in 2003, when close to 6 in 10 Americans thought the Democratic and Republican Parties were doing an adequate job of representing Americans, a majority of liberals disagreed. Liberal support for a third party climbed to 66% in 2007, ironically shortly after the Democratic Party had assumed control of Congress for the first time since 1994. This year, with Barack Obama heading the Democratic ticket, marks the low point in liberal support for a third party, at 51%, but it is still above the majority level.
This year's drop in liberal support for a third party may suggest that liberals' penchant for favoring a third major party reflects a desire for a party that more closely reflects their political views, and perhaps they see Barack Obama as doing that better than Democratic leaders who have come before him.
Those who identify as political moderates, a disproportionate percentage of whom also are independent in their partisan orientation, have generally preferred that there be a third party to help represent the opinions of Americans.
Conservatives, who in general tend to favor the status quo, have usually expressed satisfaction with the two-party system.
Americans' views on the need for a third political party have varied in recent years, and in this presidential election year the public is divided down the middle. That could reflect general satisfaction with the major parties' presidential candidates, both of whom enjoy favorable ratings near 60%. This question was not asked in 1992, when independent candidate Ross Perot had the best showing for a third-party candidate in recent memory.
The lower desire for a major third party does not bode well for the third-party candidacies of Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, and Cynthia McKinney, who have registered only minimal support when included in presidential election polls this year, and who have struggled to attract campaign dollars that have flowed rather freely to Obama and McCain.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-11, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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