When news broke the other day about a major poll concluding the great majority of Californians would like to see a moderate third party on the ballot next fall, most responses were shrugs and yawns.
But if anyone could get a mainstream third party onto the ballot — unlike options like the extremist American Independents and Peace and Freedom Party — Democrats and Republicans might not be so cavalier about a potential new competitor.
In fact, the specter of H. Ross Perot and his short-lived Reform Party still hangs over California political reality even as the likes of anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and retiring West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin make presidential candidate noises.
Until Perot spent millions of his own dollars in 1992 to enter the lists against both Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, California had been a pretty solid Republican state in presidential elections.
Before 1992, the last Democratic presidential hopeful to carry California was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, after a campaign colored by charges that Republican rival Barry Goldwater was too much of an extremist. (Among today’s Republicans he might seem moderate; Goldwater copped to having some Democratic friends.)
Before that, Harry Truman in 1948 was the last Democrat to win California. But since oilman Perot’s mostly self-funded third-party bid altered reality, no Republican candidate for president has won in California.
It’s hard to know for certain whether Perot helped convert California from a red presidential state to blue. But academic studies consistently find that once voters go for a party they have not habitually supported, they often continue wandering off previous reservations.
The folksy Perot attracted far more previous GOP voters than Democrats. Things were never the same again in California politics.
Other factors — like the fear of discrimination that the 1994 Proposition 187 struck in Latino hearts and minds and the resulting surge in Hispanic voting — played big roles, too, but it’s tough to argue against Perot’s major effect.
So now comes news that California is ripe for a serious third party, a moderate alternative to both President Biden and ex-President Donald Trump, the Republicans’ current overwhelming front-runner.
No one knows if a new party would pull voters away from Biden in a kind of payback for what Perot did to Bush 31 years ago. But if a new party’s nominee were a converted moderate Republican, it could wind up damaging Trump just like Perot’s party did to Bush, draining off voters who likely otherwise would go Republican.
It’s possible both Kennedy and Manchin could mount significant independent runs. Some polling shows Kennedy might hurt Trump more than Biden, while Manchin would likely harm Biden more.
But neither has Perot’s money or by himself amounts to a political party and both face the huge task of getting on the ballot in all 50 states.
Time is growing short for a real third party to rise up next year. Former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell tried in 2020 to get such a party (called the Common Sense Party) on the ballot, but failed.
Yet, there are all those Californians telling pollsters at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California they have trouble abiding either major party.
Which might mean that if Campbell and his supporters tried again, they could get a new party qualified. But that won’t happen in time for next year’s election.
If third party backers get cracking today, they might manage to win ballot status here and in many states by 2026 and run a presidential candidate in 2028.
For now, though, any new party would be faceless unless it adopted Kennedy or Manchin, an unlikely prospect.
But notice has been served: If Democrats keep trying to defy the voters’ will, as they did with no-cash bail and might with higher pay for fast-food workers, they now know it will cause voters to react against them.
And Republicans know that many voters are dissatisfied with GOP stances against popular California ideas like gun control and abortion on demand.
This means unless the parties change — which they so far refuse to do — there’s plenty of appetite for a replacement party.
It all makes the third-party possibility well worth watching.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].