That’s the hope. But the third-party solution has risks, too, bigger risks than anyone is calculating right now.
When people bolt their party, the party changes behind them.
Take, for example, the Progressive Republicans. When they bolted the party to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s independent campaign in 1912, they left conservatives in control of the Republican apparatus. Before 1912, it was very much an open question whether the reformist movements of the 20th century would find their home in the Republican or Democratic Party. After 1912, the most important of those reforms would be carried out at the federal level by Democrats, and opposed by Republicans. When Republicans regained the White House in 1920, it would be under the leadership of the man who’d delivered the nominating speech for William Howard Taft at the 1912 convention. The young people who’d looked to Teddy Roosevelt for change in 1912 would in many cases end up as followers of his cousin Franklin in 1932—most notably, the former Bull Moose who ran most of the early New Deal, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.
Or consider the example of George Wallace. When he bolted from the Democratic Party in 1968, he offered downscale Southern whites the same political mix they’d supported since Reconstruction: populist economics joined to racial conservatism. His bolt was intended to frighten national Democrats to jettison Kennedy-Johnson liberalism and return to something like the old ways. Instead, the 1968 election confirmed the Democrats as the party of black interests and black votes. Wallace accelerated the great political realignment of the 1970s: minorities and highly educated whites moving into the Democratic party; downscale whites leaving it, especially in the South.
Or take Ross Perot’s 1992 insurgency. The Republican Party dominated presidential politics from 1968 through 1988, winning every election except 1976, and gaining in 1972 and 1984 two outright landslides: 60.7 percent and 58.8 percent of the vote, respectively.
But in 1992, Perot smashed the old Nixon-Reagan coalition. He won over 20 percent of the vote in the state of California—a solid Republican state before 1992, and never again thereafter. His very best state—Maine—had likewise been a Republican stronghold before 1992, and would never vote Republican again. Perot exposed Republican vulnerabilities in the new purple states of the South, notably North Carolina, where Bill Clinton finished within less than one point of George H.W. Bush.
The white voters most resistant to the Perot message were those who attended church most often. Post-1992, the GOP redefined its base vote in religious rather than economic terms. And while that redefinition reestablished the party’s competitiveness, it also denied it the majority support it had enjoyed pre-Perot. Only once after 1992, in 2004, would the Republican win more than 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election—and then only barely.