Third party threat? In survey, California political establishment doesn’t see it coming

State Democratic registration has flatlined, Republicans are sinking, and the share of California voters registering no party affiliation is at an all time high. Pundits and politicians speak of the “swamp,” use “politics” as a term of abuse and inveigh against the hacks and the insiders who make up the political establishment.

And yet the odds are slim to nil that California voters will have an electorally viable third party to get behind anytime soon.

At least according to the political insiders we asked.

This election season, CALmatters is partnering with the California Target Book, an online repository of statewide campaign data compiled for Sacramento’s political class. Until the November election, we’ll be surveying Target Book’s paid subscribers—a who’s-who of state operatives from both major parties, plus lobbyists, labor and business groups, and other political cognoscenti—about what they see happening in California politics.

“Politics is not a game. But like football and stocks, the most loyal followers want to know the view of inside, highly-connected experts,” said Dave Lesher, editor and CEO of CALmatters. “Nobody knows California campaigns better than Target Book insiders.”

Our first question in this Insiders Track Survey: “What is the likelihood that by 2025 there will be one or more truly competitive new parties in the state?”

If the Sacramento political wisdom is to be believed, third party hopefuls need not quit their day jobs.

Of the 45 insiders who responded to the survey, more than three-quarters said the chance of a real electoral alternative emerging is unlikely, with 28 saying very unlikely. Zero described the scenario as “very likely.”

“The Democratic and Republican parties agree on exactly one thing, and that is that nobody else should be in the game,” said Target Book publisher Darry Sragow. He noted, for example, that California requires twice as many valid voter signatures to qualify a new political party as it does to qualify an initiative statute.

In the lead-up to the 2012 election, Sragow was a senior advisor to the nonprofit Americans Elect, which retained him to scout out dozens of current and former politicians for a possible third-party ticket in all 50 states.

“Just about everybody said to us very directly and very clearly that the political system is broken—it’s not working, it needs to be reformed, we have to find another way,” he said. But no qualified candidates were willing to “step up to the plate,” he said—either because they feared backlash from the political establishment or because they thought the barriers were too high.

Despite all that, Sragow says he thinks this fall’s survey respondents are overly bearish on the question. He points to shifting trends in voter registration, public disapproval of both major parties, and the election of a President Donald Trump as evidence of voters’ widespread dissatisfaction with their menu of political options.

“I don’t for a second underestimate the obstacles, having worked on this very directly, but at some point this pent up dissatisfaction with the choices that voters have is going to be manifested in something other than picking a president who is demonstrably outrageous,” he said.

Among those clamoring for a third party to emerge here: the editorial board of The New York Times, which wrote this spring that, given the state’s top-two primary system allowing two candidates to advance to the general regardless of party affiliation, “if a third party has a chance anywhere in the United States, it’s in California.”

In posts to come, we’ll hear from California’s political class about this year’s ballot measures, factors most likely to influence the upcoming election, and prospects for a November Democratic blue wave.

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