Party Entry How the U.S. became walled in by two political parties, and how to surmount them.

Steven C. Smith

With all the hub-bub this election—and recent threats by certain candidates to run independently made by various individuals—The Common Reader sat down with Professor Steven S. Smith, one of Washington University in St. Louis’s experts on the United States’ political system. Smith is Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences, Professor of Political Science, and the Director of the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University. He is also the Director of the American Panel Survey (TAPS), a project of the Weidenbaum Center, which provides a respected survey research platform in the social sciences.

We asked him five questions about why our two-party system remains so entrenched, what might happen if a third party candidate ran, what consequences of potential changes in our voting system might hold, and how the media influences elections.



One: What in this nation’s history has created a two-party monopoly and made it so entrenched?


We have had two parties dating back to the time of Jefferson. Our electoral system creates powerful incentives for smaller groups to aggregate into one of two large parties.


It’s really built into the single-member district plurality election system that dominates American politics. That’s how Congress is elected, it’s how state legislatures are elected, it’s how most local governments are elected. In a single-member district there’s only one winner, and with plurality voting, it means there’s one election and the person with the most votes wins.


This means that if you’re a small party, you not only have to beat one of the two major parties in order to win even a single seat, but you have to beat them both somewhere. And that’s very hard to do. It’s certainly hard to do over and over and over again so you get regular representation in legislative bodies.


The result is that if there’s a small party that is gaining popularity, there’s a very good chance that one of the two major parties will take its message as their own and undermine the attractiveness of that smaller party.


So smaller parties pop up all the time, but they seldom last. It’s very different than in a proportional representation system as many continental European systems have, where small parties can get the proportion of the seats in a parliament, and by virtue of being there continue to attract attention to the cause. But in the American-style system, as the small party’s beginning to go up, in order to get a single seat—just a single seat!—in a legislative body, they need to beat both of the legislative parties in a district. That’s a big challenge.


It is not merely enough to be more popular than one of the major parties. You actually have to be more popular somewhere than both of them. If your popularity continues to grow, then one of those two major parties is likely to take over your message.


Really, history matters here. Once you have two major parties, they tend to be highly aggregated bodies representing quite a diversity of interests. In today’s American politics, we think of the Democrats and the Republicans as quite polarized, one party being liberal and the other being conservative. But the fact is they still represent quite a diversity of interests, geography—economic interests, social interests.


So if you think of today’s Republicans, for example, we think of big business but we also think of conservative Evangelicals. Well, these are two very different groups of people with very different economic interests, very different cultural interests. But it’s what major parties in the United States have always been like. Really quite complex, quite diverse.


Now this diversity means that if a new cause becomes popular, one of the two major parties is likely to be flexible enough to absorb that message and make it one of its own. And so it’s very difficult for a minor party to become a major party in that system.


It is not merely enough to be more popular than one of the major parties. You actually have to be more popular somewhere than both of them. If your popularity continues to grow, then one of those two major parties is likely to take over your message.


That’s the big story. Now there’s another part of this story, and that is, election rules are stacked against small parties. But that’s only because the two major parties were already dominant, and they started writing these rules. So it’s difficult to get on the ballot in some states, because the two major parties, their endorsee or their primary winner is automatically on the general election ballot. Whereas in some states the rules for getting on the ballot for someone other than representatives of the major party is really very difficult.


And so there are real, legal obstacles in the way of smaller parties becoming bigger parties. But the truth is, we already had in place a single-member district plurality election system that in the United States—and elsewhere where it exists—in most of the former British empire, they have single-member district plurality elections—they have a major two-party system.


Even think about the United Kingdom, where the liberals are a third party. But they’re a very small third party. It’s kind of a two-plus system. But it’s because it has a single-member district plurality elections that make it very difficult for a third party to get strong.



Two: We have heard Trump threaten to run as an independent, along with threats from others to run as independents if Trump gets nominated as the Republican candidate. What would it take for them to overcome those obstacles? Is it even possible?

It’s very difficult. For one thing, they’re not automatically on the ballot. In most states, they would have to have a petition signed. So they’d have to spend a lot of money just to get on the ballot. And that’s a very big obstacle.


Now, Ross Perot had that kind of money in the 1990s, and presumably Donald Trump would have that kind of money. Maybe Mitt Romney and backers in the Republican party would have that kind of money should they decide to run independently of Trump. But it’s not easy.


Even Ross Perot didn’t end up being on the ballot everywhere. And of course if you’re not on the ballot you can’t win electoral votes. And that’s another part of the system. At the presidential level, it doesn’t do any good to come in second in a state. You can be very, very popular in a big state like California, Texas, New York, or Florida, lose by one vote, and you get zero electoral votes. So it wouldn’t be enough for a third party candidate or an independent candidate to come in second. You actually have to come in first in a significant number of states.


If the Republicans should mess things up here so badly that they end up spurring an independent candidacy, and that candidacy takes votes away from the Republican nominee, as probably would be the case if it was Romney running, or even Trump running, it probably dooms both of them come November, and makes it easier for the Democratic candidate to win the election.



Three: In terms of the percentage of people we have voting on elections in the United States—some of the other voting systems you mentioned, like Australia, have mandatory voting. First off, is there any sort of relationship between voting rate and party outcomes?


What’s probably true is that the people who under our current rules are least likely to vote are also the least motivated to vote, the least partisan, the least attentive to political affairs generally. And so getting them into the electorate might actually change the mix of people in a substantial way. These people tend to be less well-educated, they tend to have lower incomes. They’re certainly less knowledgeable and attentive to politics than those who vote. By adding them to the electorate you certainly would change the composition of the electorate. The whole dynamic would change.


It would probably on balance benefit the Democrats. Because these people would tend to be the kind who would support Democrats over Republicans. So anything to increase turnout, especially a substantial increase in turnout, probably would have some partisan implications. So it’s probably not accidental that in state after state it’s Republicans who are leading the effort to make it a little bit more difficult to vote. The voter ID laws are advocated almost everywhere exclusively by Republicans. So they’re trying to make it harder to vote rather than easier to vote, because surely if they saw it as hurting their party they would at least be neutral on the issue of voter ID laws, and they’re not.



Four: Would there be any advantage to making voting mandatory?


Usually, there’s built-in excuses that are allowed under the law in these mandatory voting systems—people who are invalid, for work reasons can’t make it to the polls and so on, are excused. But greatly increasing the number of people who vote would probably make a difference.


In the United States, I don’t think we’d ever move to mandatory voting. I think the open question is voter registration. Whether the technology and other changes that are added would lead to automatic voter registration so that everyone, when they come of age, automatically is registered to vote. They wouldn’t have to take steps themselves to register to vote. Some people advocate, for example, that upon birth or upon being granted citizenship a person would be given a national ID card. And that national ID card, presumably with encrypted identification information, could be used to register to vote anywhere. One could imagine a system in which there’s a national computer system in which, if you vote in one location, you’re simply not allowed to vote in any other location on election day. It’s recorded. You voted. You voted over in Illinois so you can’t vote over in Missouri. The cheating then would presumably no longer be a concern.


… one can imagine that a quarter century from now, the technology will have changed in ways that we can’t imagine at the moment, but that would enable a worry-free, universal voter registration system.


But there are a lot of people who for other reasons—civil liberties reasons—worry that a national ID card would be used to track people. That more and more organizations, maybe every time you use a credit card you’d have to show your ID card. Well, if that was true, then there’d be an electronic record of your whereabouts. Some people think that’s a violation of our civil liberties.


So one can imagine that a quarter century from now, the technology will have changed in ways that we can’t imagine at the moment, but that would enable a worry-free, universal voter registration system. That would mean that even someone who’s not very attentive to politics but sees election day coming tomorrow, who didn’t think about registering 30 days in advance as used to be required by their state, might now get motivated to vote and be able to vote because of a last-minute interest in voting.


I think we wouldn’t get 100 percent turnout, but we’d probably get, in presidential election year, I’m guessing 10 or 15 percent higher turnout if we had universal voter registration.



Five: Finally, what sort of role does media play—how much control or how little control does it have over outcomes and processes of presidential elections?


Well, media has an influence. But control, it does not have. The most common criticism of the media is that they pay too much attention to the horse race and too little attention to the issues, to the substantive policy issues that are at stake in American government.


By and large that’s a fair criticism. Just imagine how Marco Rubio feels today when the last two days’ worth of stories are how he’s out of it when he’s still trying to attract votes in Florida to win a primary. Well, how do you persuade voters to vote for you if everyone around them is telling them that you have no chance? They’re going to start thinking about who else to vote for, who might have a chance, so they can affect the outcome.


The top-of-the-fold story in The Washington Post this morning was something about the demise and unraveling of the Rubio campaign. Well, that makes it seem like he did something wrong. Maybe he’s just too moderate for his party and he did nothing wrong. But that’s not what’s being interpreted. If you turn on any of the cable news shows, the talking heads are saying that he’s somehow out of it. If you’re a voter looking for guidance on who to vote for in the Florida primary, you’re not going to find it in the major news sources. At least if you’re only paying attention during the last couple of weeks before your primary. Because you’re not getting much about the news.


Now even if you watch the debates, you might have a hard time figuring out issue positions because this year, at least, half of the debates are responses to one of the other candidates’ personal criticisms. The media does play into this.


Now, the media has a response, and that is: “We have covered the substantive issues. We just can’t do it over and over and over again because no one will listen. We can’t just repeat ourselves all of the time. We can go online and find our summary of the candidates’ issue positions. We just can’t lead with that all of the time. It wouldn’t be news. What’s news is the horse race, that there’s been a change in the polls or something like that.”


The media do influence the dynamics of a presidential nomination contest in an important way. It helps to create momentum for a candidate, or takes away momentum (as in the case of Rubio in the last week). That can make a difference in the outcome.


But in a sense they’re not controlling the outcome. This is an interesting dynamic that goes on between the candidates, the electorate, and the media. The media is struggling to play what it perceives to be a proper role, but also a money-making role in this process. They certainly could improve.


The other thing to be said about the media is that it’s really quite diverse now. There are many parts of the media that do a very responsible job and try to stick to the issues whenever they can, and other parts of it that never pay any attention to the issues at all. It’s really very much a mixed story, with respect to the media’s role.

Kae Petrin

Kae Petrin is a Data & Graphics Reporter on Chalkbeat’s data visuals team and freelances for the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. They cofounded the Trans Journalists Association in 2020 with several dozen other journalists; ze has since run many of the organization’s internal operations. They have presented on queer and trans coverage best practices, data reporting and visualization tools, and the intersections of these topics for universities, industry conferences, custom-designed workshops, and newsrooms around the U.S. Ze also served as a board member and secretary for the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2023.