This is the rumble that rolls through American politics every time issues voters suffer a defeat: We will form a new party! It's percolating among the far-right in the aftermath of Republicans' unsurprising loss in the budget fight. No one should be more enthusiastic about that idea than Democrats.
The Atlantic's Molly Ball reports that the idea of an actual Tea Party is very much in vogue among the not-usually-in-vogue set.
The calls for a split mark a new, more acrimonious chapter in the long-simmering conflict between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. Steve Deace, an Iowa-based talk-radio host, said his audience has never been angrier. “They’re tired of electing a bunch of Republicans who care more about what the media thinks about them than what the people who elected them think,” he told me. … To Deace, “political-party disintegration” is on the horizon.
As Ball points out, Tea Partiers have long seen themselves as distinct from the GOP establishment — and enthusiastically so. While more self-identified Tea Party supporters see themselves as Republicans than in 2011, according to Pew Research, such people are still in the minority. Tea Party leaders like Deace are all for branching out: Sarah Palin gestured wanly at third party primaries over at Facebook; Erick Erickson was more direct both with Ball and in a post at his blog, RedState. Oh, and who can forget Mr. Ted Cruz of Texas, who's already leading his own party before it's been created.
You may have noticed however that we don't already have a bunch of robust third parties. There are a number of reasons for that — institutionalized bias to two parties, electoral systems that make new parties tricky. Historically, America reverts to two parties even when there is a new party that has a decent showing. But no third party has had a decent showing in quite some time.
Let's start by looking at Congress, where it is obviously easier — though not much easier — to elect someone from a third party to office. Below graphs showing the make-up of each chamber of Congress over the past 60 years. (Data source.)
Over the past six decades, the most non-major-party representatives that have been in the Senate or the House during any Congress is two. Two. Two of the 100 senators; two of the 435 representatives. Again: State parties do a great job of locking out third parties, setting difficult-to-surmount barriers to getting on the ballot and leveraging strong institutional systems. But those barriers have existed for a long time without being swept away, despite the earnest efforts of lots of people. Beating the system is hard.
But what Tea Partiers really have their eye on is the big prize — the presidency. And, to be sure, the track record of success for third parties is much better on the national stage. Below is a chart of every presidential election since 1952, showing the percent of the vote for the Democrat, Republican, best showing third party, and everyone else. (Data source.)
In four of the 16 elections over the past 60 years — one quarter of them! — a third party candidate has gotten more than 6 percent of the vote. That's significant! Until you consider the following graph. It shows the equivalent electoral vote tally in each election.
The last time a candidate got a significant number of electoral votes was 1968, when George Wallace ran on an explicitly racist platform to take several Southern states. As we all know, the electoral college is the stumbling block. Even winning a decent percentage in a number of states doesn't do you any good if you can't cobble together electoral votes. You could siphon 33 percent of the vote in all 50 states and not win a single electoral vote.
What happens with third parties, and the main reason why the Democrats and Republicans want to crush them, is that votes are zero sum. Those votes have to come from somewhere, and with only two parties to pick from, it's going to be either the Democrats or Republicans. People of a certain age will remember Ross Perot's quixotic-but-not-unsuccessful bids for the presidency, giving the Republican Party its lowest presidential vote percentage in decades. Perot and his Reform Party gobbled up votes from George H. W. Bush, the incumbent, helping Bill Clinton win in 1992. Perot tried again in 1996, winning 19 and 8 percent of the vote in the two races. He won zero electoral votes — but may have cost Bush a second term.
If there were a Tea Party, it's again the Republicans that would suffer. That Pew poll cited above showed that there was far more overlap between Tea Party supporters and Republicans than with Democrats. Not surprising, of course, but still. So what could an actual Tea Party candidate do in 2016?
Without easy access to party registration data and Tea Party support levels per state, we can only estimate. Let's say you took the 2012 presidential election results and split those voters up based on how likely Democrats and Republicans are to support the Tea Party. Any third party voters in 2012, we'll give to the Tea Party, too. An example. In 2012, 44.6 percent of the vote in Arizona went for Obama. 53.7 percent went for Romney. Nationally, 2 percent of Democrats support the Tea Party and 41 percent of Republicans do. So if we take 2 percent of the Obama 44.6 percent and 41 percent of the Romney 53.7 — and then add the 1.76 percent for voted for someone else — Arizona no longer is a red state. The percentage becomes 31.7 percent Republican, 24.6 percent Tea Party — and the plurality, 43.7 percent, votes for the Dems. Not the outcome conservative voters want. Applying that math to the whole country, we get an electoral map that looks like this:
The electoral vote total is 510 for the Democrats, 25 for the GOP, and nada for the new guys. Those are Reagan-in-1984 level numbers, but almost certainly with a non-Reagan-like president.
And that's a generous formulation! The Tea Party is not gaining strength, it's flat. Could it win some local or state races? Certainly. Could it win a Senate or House seat? Yes — it already has some representatives, as we learned this month. But the long term effect would be to damage the Republicans to the benefit of the Democrats, exactly what Tea Party candidates did in Senate races multiple times over the last four years. Which, of course, is why the Republicans let the Tea Partiers stage the insurgency that led to the shutdown. Keep your enemies as close as you can, unless you want America to vote Democratic for a very, very long time.