The election of 1796 was the first in which candidates for political office ran as members of organized political parties. Throughout our subsequent history, the original two parties have changed almost every aspect of their being—names, values, demographics. But one factor has stayed constant: The dual party system. Rarely in US history has a third-party gained even close to enough support to rival the two-party system. But with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two anti-establishment candidates, it’s possible to imagine that this long-held two party tradition might deteriorate. Before you jump to conclude that this proposition is rash and off-base, let’s look at the possible end-results of the current primary and upcoming general election.
Despite the fact that he’s in the lead, or perhaps because of it, establishment Republicans hate Donald Trump. They also loathe Ted Cruz. That leaves mainstream conservatives stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unlike Democrats, Republicans don’t have superdelegates, making it it mathematically impossible for John Kasich to win enough pledged to win the nomination outright. So what will happen?
Donald Trump is currently on track to win just enough delegates to snag the nomination. If he wins the republican nomination through pledged delegates, the mainstream Republicans have few options.They might support him—some politicians have pledged to support whoever the nominee is; others, including Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Stasse says he expects a “third-party” candidate to challenge Trump in the general election. Given how active establishment Republican candidates have been in criticizing Trump, it seems hard to believe that they would give up the fight so easily.
If Trump is the Republican candidate, it’s hard to predict how the voters would react, especially if he was matched against Clinton. Many who support him now would likely stay loyal, but moderate conservatives might simply stay home, or even vote for Clinton due to Trump’s racist and xenophobic remarks. In either case, this path alienates many mainstream Republican voters from their own party, weakening the establishment.
A second reality might be that Trump comes close, but does not snag enough delegates for the nomination, which would yield a brokered convention on the Republican side. The Chairman of the RNC, Reince Priebus, openly admitted that his party could be headed toward a contested or brokered convention and, “…wouldn’t commit to Donald Trump being the nominee even if he entered the July event with the most delegates.” Their chosen nominee need not be one of the candidates currently campaigning; in fact, the nominee would likely be an establishment Republican. If the Republican elite, in this scenario, decide not to choose Trump, the public’s reaction would be mixed, but still significant.
It’s crucial to emphasize the base of Trump’s support comes from voters who feel they are being ignored by mainstream politics. In a survey from the RAND corporation, voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. Trump himself hinted at the chaos that might occur if the voices of the people who voted for him get muted. His voters might stay home, defect from the party, riot, or all of the above. If the Republican establishment decides not to choose Trump, and disenfranchise all of Trump’s supporters, suddenly the fears of Trump’s voters would be validated. This scenario would have detrimental effects on the Republican party going into the future.
Although the race is far from over, it looks as if Hillary Clinton is more likely than Bernie Sanders to win the nomination. However, if this is the case, it’s important to note that Hillary Clinton is not necessarily entitled to Bernie Sanders’ supporters. In fact, a current poll showed that 33 percent of his supporters won’t vote for Clinton in the general election. Hillary Clinton’s shifting perspectives on policy issues seem disengenuous for many progressives who are finding it more and more difficult to support her in the general election.
Bernie Sanders has captured a wide majority of independents and voters under the age of 35. It’s unrealistic to expect these largely independent voters to switch to the Democratic Party and vote for an elite member of the Democratic establishment. Progressive voters do have options; they might vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, or maybe even write in Sanders’ name on the ballot. Especially in the context of the many incidents of shady election tactics and voter suppression, most recently seen in Arizona, it’s possible to imagine that progressives supporting Sanders might not support Clinton. Or, if they support Clinton in 2016, maybe they won’t in 2020.
Where does this leave us? The potential results of the primary and general elections are still very far from set in, but these conjectures demonstrate an important fact—Trump and Sanders’ supporters are real, and they’re not going to fade into the background of mainstream politics. The Republican and Democratic establishments will be weakened by the end of the 2016 election, regardless of who their nominees are, and who wins in the general election. It’s very possible we might see a Sanders v. Trump showdown—but even if we don’t—prepare for 2020. Even Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former labor secretary, imagines a future in which a third party candidate might be a real possibility. The populist movements on both the left and right of politics are tired of being taken advantage of by corrupt politicians that don’t actually listen to what they want. If the Republicans choose a mainstream candidate, and the Democrats nominate Clinton, the public might become frustrated enough to open the way for a third-party candidate to stand a real chance in the election of 2020.