The victories by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders underscore powerful themes that have emerged from the primaries—Democratic unhappiness with the economy and Republican anger over America's standing in the world. Aggravating the anger is bipartisan voter rejection of veteran politicians favored by each party's establishment.
“People on both the right and the left are just furious. There's a feeling that the country doesn't work anymore,“ said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “It's a real toxic atmosphere.”
It's not clear whether the climate of anger would be favorable to a third-party bid being considered by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who told the Financial Times on the eve of the New Hampshire vote that he was “looking at all options.”
“I find the level of discourse and discussion distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to the voters,” said Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. He told the newspaper that the U.S. public deserved “a lot better” and that if he decided to go ahead with such a bid, he'd need to start in March to put his name on ballots across the nation.
Last week, a person familiar with his plans who was not authorized to speak on the record told Bloomberg News that Bloomberg's decision would depend in part on whether the more ideological candidates won the major parties' primaries. Marc La Vorgna, a spokesman for Michael Bloomberg, declined to comment on the Financial Times story and said there would be no comment on last night's New Hampshire vote, “regardless of outcome.”
The voter discontent is unusual in that it spans both parties, even on common issues. Some of the strongest support that Sanders and Trump received in Iowa came from voters who felt the economy was rigged in favor of the very wealthy and powerful, according to polling done for Bloomberg News and the Des Moines Register by Selzer & Company.
J. Ann Selzer, the Iowa-based pollster who oversaw the survey, said of Sanders and Trump: “You're looking at a socialist and a capitalist, and that sort of speaks to the crossover appeal.”
David Redlawsk, director of Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, said it's too early to conclude from two primaries that strains of voter discontent would produce a favorable climate for a third-party bid. Strong emotions are common in the early stages of the primaries, he said.
“You have to let the primaries play out,” said Redlawsk, who is analyzing polling research in Iowa.
“Obviously people are unhappy with the status quo. And the bigger the unhappiness, the larger the opportunity for a third party,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “But I don't think there's good data on whether the country is ready to do that. We've never elected a non-Republican or a non-Democrat.”
Qualifying for third-party ballot access in all 50 states might be the least of the obstacles, said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a San Francisco-based newsletter that advocates “fair and equitable ballot access laws.”
The first deadline for independent candidates to file petition signatures is May 9, in Texas. All other state deadlines are between June and September. Winger said then-U.S. Representative John Anderson, a Republican, didn't declare his 1980 independent candidacy for president until late April of that year and he managed to get his name on all 50 ballots. Independent Ross Perot appeared on 50 ballots in 1992, as did Ralph Nader in 2000.
“When someone has a lot of support, state election officials do not try to challenge them,” Winger said.
More problematic is American history, which shows that third-party campaigns produce more noise than electoral success. Perot, a billionaire like Bloomberg, won 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992, the most since Theodore Roosevelt's 27 percent in his third-party bid in 1912.
But Perot won no states, no electoral votes and was criticized by Republicans who said he drained votes away from President George H. W. Bush, tipping the election to Democrat Bill Clinton. Many Democrats blamed Nader for Al Gore's narrow loss to George W. Bush in 2000.
The last independent candidate to win electoral votes was Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968, gathering 46 from the five southern states he carried.
“America is hard-wired for a two-party system, and all independent candidacies can do is trigger unintended consequences,” Yepsen said, speaking of Bloomberg's looming decision. “Given that track record, what does he want the unintended consequences to be?”