Andrew Yang rose to prominence on the back of a very peculiar idea: universal basic income. This proposal that every American should receive a no-strings-attached $1,000 check from the federal government every month propelled Yang to the presidential debate stage. Though it was impressive that he shared the stage with experienced politicians like (then Vice) President Biden and several senators, his lack of experience and a stable base were ultimately his downfall.
Leaning into meme culture and popular podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience, Yang often touted his approval rating with Independents and Trump supporters, but he was sorely unable to transform that general likability into cold hard votes.
After this impressive but nonetheless disappointing campaign for a relative newcomer to electoral politics, Yang transitioned to running for mayor of New York City. I wont delve too deeply into Yangs journey from leading the mayoral primary to a disappointing fourth-place finish, but rest assured that his subsequent failure hinged on the same issues: an inability to form a coherent base from merely a friendly smile and some unique ideas.
After his defeat to current New York City Mayor, Eric Adams, Yang made a public announcement.
He had formally left the Democratic Party and formed the Forward Party. He announced this new party in his book of the same name. Forward which I read laid out the platform of ranked-choice voting, open primaries, fact-based governance, human-centered capitalism, modern and effective government, universal basic income and grace and tolerance.
Yangs core claim was that this party, with its hodgepodge of reasonable-sounding policy ideas, would be able to fill a gap in the American party repertoire that both Democrats and Republicans were neglecting. Through an assortment of commonsense policies aimed at reforming government, Yang believes this party could inspire action in a diverse coalition of discouraged and infrequent voters.
In some sense the polls are on Yangs side: many of his ideas are certainly popular. Seventy-seven percent of Americans agree that campaign spending needs to be curtailed. Eighty-two percent side with his call for Congressional term limits. Nine in 10 Americans share his stance against partisan gerrymandering. With 42% of Americans identifying as independents, this should be great news for a party that aims to capture the politically homeless middle.
Unfortunately, even though a plurality of Americans identify as Independents, as many as 91% of Americans have a significant preference for one party or the other, with the leftover 9% of true Independents varying significantly in race, occupation and economic interests. This makes forming a base from voters with common interests like how Democrats captured the union vote and Republicans successfully courted evangelicals very difficult.
Currently, the Democrats base is largely young people, urbanites, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people and those with college degrees. The Republican base is largely white evangelicals, business owners, those living in rural areas and voters older than 65. These bases are sustainable, based on groups with shared interests and are able to mobilize effectively to achieve concrete outcomes.
Even though Yangs policies are broadly popular, the electorate he is targeting centrists who are dissatisfied with the political system are, as the Pew Research Center describes those in the middle, Stressed Sideliners the group with the lowest level of political engagement. This makes them the least effective voters to be targeting. The polling I exhibited earlier (that was generally approving of Forwards main ideas) displays much less the strong principled standings of likely voters who are ready to jump on board a new party, and more the vague preferences of those who dont vote in midterm or local elections. A sustainable, enduring third party cant be made up solely of unlikely voters.
That is not to say there is no room for another party in the American political system.
The most successful third party in recent history was the Reform Party, led by Texas billionaire Ross Perot in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. In 1992, Perot, utilizing a mishmash of right- and left-wing ideas, famously captured almost 19% of the vote, making for a third-place finish. Despite this relative success, the coalition disintegrated when Perot was no longer on the ballot.
I appreciate that Yang has been reluctant to put forth a Forward Party presidential ticket, as third parties often do. Focusing on local and statehouse races is much more rewarding for a party hoping to get a foothold than doomed White House runs. The Libertarian Party, for instance, has a singular state legislator elected nationwide (two are listed on the partys website, but John Andrews of Maine changed his affiliation to Republican last year). Instead of investing in local and state races, the Libertarians focus their electoral energy on securing a measly 1% of the vote every presidential election cycle.
Third parties, at least in their incipient stages, seem to be dependent on having a strong personality at their forefront. Yang can capitalize on his already existing fame like how billionaire Ross Perot did in 92 and 96 to hopefully help his down-ballot candidates move along in the future.
Polling shows that Yangs political base during the presidential primary largely consisted of non-voters, men under 44 and Asian Americans. Many of Yangs most vociferous supporters were those who would fall into the Tech Bro category.
If you want a place with a strong base of wealthy donors, a generally left-of-center voter base and high populations of Asian Americans, there is a clear answer. Yang has an obvious strategy in front of him, but it will require him to pick up shop and move West.
Californias election laws favor third parties more than almost any other state in the U.S.. Since 2011, the Golden State has had a top-two primary system, wherein all candidates Democrats, Republicans and Independents have run against each other in an open primary. The California Secretary of States office describes the process as candidates are listed on one ballot and only the top two vote-getters in the primary election regardless of party preference move on to the general election. Yang included this idea of open primaries in Forwards platform, so taking advantage of it for electoral gain would be serendipitous.
Lets digress from the political realities and focus instead on concrete outcomes for a moment. I want this new party to succeed. Even though we certainly differ ideologically, if even half of the ideas in Yangs book were implemented, we would be in a much better national position to take the 21st Century by the throat. But I know he can do better. If Forward ever becomes a more substantial organization currently both registered Democrats and Republicans can join, which is incredibly odd, and not how a legitimate political party operates it must focus on a demographic it can win, as opposed to targeting the least engaged voters on the political spectrum. Trying to secure what some have called the politically homeless middle is a noble endeavor, but it cant be the sole objective of a serious party in these polarized times.
Julian Barnard is the Editorial Page Editor and can be reached at email@example.com
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