PRINCETON, NJ -- Fifty-two percent of Americans believe the Republican and Democratic parties do such a poor job of representing the people that a third party is needed. Forty percent believe they do an adequate job. The percentage calling for a third party is down from August, when it tied its high of 58%.
Support for a third party has fluctuated since October 2003, when Gallup first asked this question. The majority of Americans thought a third party was not needed at that time. Since then, Americans have generally favored a third party, but twice there has been an even division of opinion -- both of which occurred in the fall of an election year.
Majority of Republicans Back Third Party for First Time
Gallup has always found political independents to be most desirous of a third party, and 68% currently are. But right now there is also a significant party gap, with 52% of Republicans favoring a third party, compared with 33% of Democrats.
This is the first time Gallup finds a significantly higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats in favor of a third party. During much of President Bush's term, the opposite was true, with Democrats more likely to favor the formation of a third party. That gap narrowed in 2007, after the Democrats' victories in the 2006 midterms, and there has been a minimal difference between the two parties until the current poll.
Tea Party Supporters More in Favor of Third Party
The increase in Republican support for a third party since 2008 could be an outgrowth of the Tea Party movement, which is closely aligned with the GOP. The poll, which also assessed Americans' orientation toward the movement, finds 60% of those who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters in favor of a third party, compared with 44% of Tea Party opponents. The opinions of those who say they are neither supporters nor opponents fall in between those of the two groups.
Gallup currently finds essentially no differences in support for a third party by political ideology, with 51% of conservatives, 52% of moderates, and 52% of liberals in favor. Over time, the ideological groups' positions have converged, with conservatives becoming more supportive.
A slim majority of Americans favor a third political party, fewer than did so late last summer. Americans' views of the need for a third party have waxed and waned over the years, but have never been higher than 58%.
Though more Americans identify as political independents than as either Republicans or Democrats, the likelihood that a third party will emerge is not clear, because many independents generally lean to one party or the other, and those who do have leanings tend to have attitudes similar to those of Democratic or Republican identifiers. Third parties also face institutional challenges to gaining power in the United States, in terms of the way Americans elect presidents and members of Congress, awarding electoral votes or seats to the party winning the most votes in a state or district. Historically, when third parties have emerged in U.S. politics, they have generally not been able to sustain any success they have had for more than an election or two.
At this point, it is unclear whether a major third-party candidate will contest the 2012 election against Barack Obama and the Republican nominee. Given that a majority of Americans see a need for a third party, and that their level of satisfaction with the way things are going in the country is fairly low, it would not be surprising if a third-party candidate emerged. Whether that candidate would be a major factor is unclear, although, based on history, it is unlikely.
Results for this USA Today/Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted April 20-23, 2011, with a random sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2010 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.
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.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.